Don’t bottle 13-year-old’s water wisdom

Essie Solomon
National Post
August 23, 2012

Young activist’s blue campaign is all wet

Thirteen-year-old Robyn Hamlyn was in Meaford, Ont., last week, explaining water policy to a rapt city council. Inspired by the Maude Barlow documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars, Hamlyn has spent the last year travelling around Ontario lobbying city councils to become blue. “Help me save our water. I can’t do it without you,” Hamlyn has pleaded to various mayors and councils. So far, she has won the support of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and four other Ontario municipalities, and doesn’t plan to stop until every community in the province is blue.

Blue Communities, conceived by the Council of Canadians (COC) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) along with activist Barlow, aims to protect Canada’s fresh water. To become a blue community, a municipality must ban the sale of plastic water bottles from public facilities and municipal events, must have a publicly funded and operated water system, and must deem water a human right.

Robyn Hamlyn believes Canada’s fresh water is a shrinking resource. As she stated in a March speech to the Council of Canadians, “We have to act now, instead of later. I get frustrated with people getting hung up on small details and when they should be looking at the bigger, more scarier picture.” What some Ontarians find scariest in this picture is the realization that municipalities take their advice from a 13-year-old.

Should plastic bottles be elevated to the top of anyone’s environmental agenda? Stewardship Ontario estimates that plastic water bottles make up less than one-fifth of 1% of the municipal solid-waste stream in Canada. In addition, 96% of Canadians say they recycle their plastic water bottles. If water is banned from municipal events, those present won’t go thirsty – they’ll purchase other, often less-healthy alternatives, such as pop, which is, incidentally, composed almost completely of water. Diet Coke is 99% water – privately owned water.

Hamlyn advises municipal councillors that bottled water may actually be less clean and safe than tap water. In reality, the opposite is true: Bottled water has never caused an illness in Canada, whereas tap water has sickened many, most notably in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, where seven people died and 2,300 suffered from a strain of E. coli.

The second rule in becoming a Blue Community is that the municipality must have publicly funded and operated water systems. According to Hamlyn, it is unethical for water to be profitable. By the logic that water, a necessity, should not generate profits, food should not do so either. Imagine if food was publicly owned. I’d rather not.

The question of which water system is better – public or private – is debatable. In the United States, publicly owned and managed water utilities are 100 times more likely to infringe Safe Drinking Water Act regulations than privately owned water utilities. In addition, private water systems are more accountable for their water than public water systems – high standards are necessary with privately owned operations, if they wish to stay in business and keep their customers. Here in Canada, CUPE and COC have admitted to public sewage systems polluting lakes and rivers. Drinking water advisories in publicly owned systems are common. As well, not all municipalities have the money to upgrade their water systems.

In the 1990s, Moncton’s public water system was producing discoloured and poor-tasting water. The city did not have enough money to build a water filtration plant, so in 1998 it sought private help. The private system Moncton adopted cost $10-million less than a public system would have, and its operating expenses were lower – and in the last 10 years, the town’s water system hasn’t had one spot on its record.

The third and final principle that must be accepted by all Blue Communities is that water is a human right. Human rights are not commodities; they are inalienable and absolute, and including water in that category stretches the definition. Inalienable rights shouldn’t come from the government; it is the government’s job to protect the rights we already have. In addition, human rights should not be something you pay for; there is a price on water, regardless if it is privately or publicly funded.

Hamlyn’s mission to commit every community to publicly funded and operated water systems would result in less effective water safety and more polluted lakes and rivers. Making human rights into commodities that can be bought and sold offends the morals. Maybe we shouldn’t leave the destiny of our water in the hands of a 13-year-old.

Essie Solomon is an intern with Toronto-based Environment Probe.

For details on the abysmal state of Ontario tap water – more than a third of Ontario’s municipal systems failed at least one water quality test in the last year – click here.


Letters to the Editor: Water a right (National Post, September 13, 2012)

Re: “Don’t bottle 13-year-old’s water wisdom,” Essie Solomon, Aug. 23

Essie Solomon’s comments on the Blue Communities project and on 13 year-old water activist Robyn Hamlyn were not only false and simplistic, but also disrespectful.

We should all answer the call of people who want to raise awareness about such an important issue as the protection and public access to clean drinking water. We should be saluting and encouraging young people like Robyn Hamlyn for speaking out for the common good.

Blue Communities is an initiative, coordinated by the Council of Canadians, that furthers the work of local Water Watch coalitions across the country. This is a broad coalition. It’s laughable (and insulting to local elected officials) to suggest that city councillors are being duped by the call to rethink the use of bottled water. Decisions to end the sale of bottled water are made in public, after open and democratic debate.

Let’s remember, bottled water is packaged in a single-use, fossil fuel-based container. Some of those containers end up in landfills. And let’s not forget that recycling is the third of the three Rs, behind reduce and reuse. Transporting used bottles and the recycling them are both energy-intensive, polluting processes.

Solomon states that human rights should not be something you pay for and making human rights into commodities that can be bought and sold offends the morals. That’s right. Water is a basic human right not a commodity to be bought and sold to generate profits for private corporations. This is a simple truth being recognized by millions of Canadians – including bright 13-year-olds.

Paul Moist, national president, Canadian Union of Public Employees

– – – – –

When did the Financial Post participate in the bullying of 13-year-old girls? Environment Probe intern Essie Solomon’s misguided, misanthropic and misleading op-ed piece in regards to Blue Communities initiatives did just that.

Perhaps getting coffee, picking up laundry and other intellectually taxing intern pursuits didn’t leave time for Solomon to properly research her findings. The cherry-picking of data, be it dated or defective, made this sad excuse for journalism more dogmatic than pragmatic. Next time Environment Probe wants to espouse its free-market environmentalism, it should rely on more fact than fallacy.

Solomon’s elitist slant on water as a human right seems to say anything we pay for is not a human right and if you can’t pay for water, you are not entitled to it.

This Blue Communities advocate, 13-year-old Robyn Hamlyn, is a hero. To paraphrase Solomon’s finishing line, maybe we shouldn’t leave the destiny of our water in the hands of an intern.

Don MacNeil, Simcoe region chapter, Council of Canadians, Barrie, Ont.

– – – – –

I totally agree with your writer to ignore the advice of the 13-year-old promoting public water systems only approach. She obviously drank the CUPE Kool-Aid.

Why do people set their hair on fire regarding private investment in water or sewage treatment and hospitals, but don’t for the largely private-sector Canadian air traffic control system, bottled water, food production and sale, the Canadian Standards Association, many gas utilities, doctors, dentists, medical labs and airlines? Perhaps it is not a question of facts or logic, but protection of union jobs, and ideology?

If private-sector investment in water treatment is so bad, why have White Rock (since 1913), Sooke, Port Hardy, Canmore, Okotoks, Strathmore, Chestermere, Taber, French Creek and Wood Buffalo all gone this route for water and/or waste water? And that is just one Canadian water services company, and just B.C. and Alberta!

Why did Walkerton, Ont., after its disaster with seven dead, switch to a private-sector approach? Did she [the 13-year-old] know that every one of Canada’s drinking water disasters was government-owned and operated (Walkerton, North Battleford, Kelowna, Princeton)?

Yes, this anti-private-sector advice should be ignored. And municipal councils who buy it are doing a terrible disservice to their ratepayers.

John Hunter, North Vancouver, B.C.


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