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Conserve and Protect Our Water

By Lin Grist

Audience members at Aquifers Under Siege – What happens when the wells run dry?

The Guelph Chapter of the Council of Canadians hosted a talk by water warrior Maude Barlow on September 12, with the help of local groups GET (Guelph Eramosa Township) Concerned and Wellington Water Watchers. The event brought together people and organizations working on water issues in our watershed. 

We heard from Save Our Water, a group from Elora that have been fighting Nestle for over a decade, and from Concerned Rockwood Citizens, who are fighting an application for a huge quarry will threaten local wells and prime agriculture land that produces the food that we all need. In total over 400 people joined us, including Council chapter representatives from Kitchener-Waterloo, Halton, Central Wellington and Peel. One woman traveled all the way from Meaford, near the Bruce Peninsula. Her family farm’s well has run dry and she is worried about all the other farmers whose wells might be at risk from mega-quarries, water bottling, and the loss of government protections for important water sources like the Grand River Watershed.

Maude gave us all an overview of what is happening across the globe on the protection of our water. She told us about the Hunger Stones in Europe, laid down by people as far back as the 1400s, with dates and inscriptions to warn of coming famine. If the water level of a river falls to the point that you can see the inscription, there will be no harvest. She told of a World Bank loan to Bolivia, made with the proviso that their water infrastructure HAD to be privatized using a specific company, Bechtel, which had no experience with water management. The cost of water shot up and people were told that they could not collect rain in their own barrels, without risk of a fine. But the people came together, took to the streets and ultimately won their fight.

Closer to home, near the Alberta tar sands sites, Indigenous people shared stories of their water and their land being polluted by the chemicals used to extract the bitumen, and of wildlife that they depended on that are at risk because they can’t find fresh water. One Indigenous man told Maude that it would be kinder for the government to come in with guns to shoot them, rather than the slow death of the community by poisoning.

There was much in her talk that was alarming – that the Great Lakes are warming much faster than first thought, that water companies continue to take many millions of litres from our local aquifers to bottle and sell at a massive profit (Nestle made $90 billion in profits last year!) and that gravel pit companies are polluting huge amounts of water, filling it with chemicals and using it to wash the gravel.  

However, Maude also reminded us that there is room for hope and optimism. We can stop the degradation of our water, protect our lakes, rivers, watersheds and aquifers and we can, over time, repair the damage – but only if we collaborate with each other.  Communities must work together to advocate for the protection of our water resources, to keep them in public hands, to ensure that we are not allowing vast quantities to be used in industrial processes that pollute and degrade our water. We, as citizens have the agency to conserve and protect our water.

I was reminded of two things as I listened to Maude talk about hope and action. In the spring of this year, Maude was the resource person for an international trade forum hosted by the Hamilton Chapter of the Council of Canadians. She explained to the small group of us that there are three things we as citizens needed to do to help create the change that we want:

  • educate ourselves and others on the issues;

  • collaborate with like-minded groups – because we are stronger when we collaborate; and

  • move to action!

The second thing was I reminded of was the mantra of Jack Layton, who I knew as my councillor in Toronto and who became the leader of the federal NDP. Jack was an environmentalist long before it came on the public radar. His advice was always: Think globally, act locally.

In December, Maude will be doing just that, as a guest of the Nobel in Stockholm. Every year the Nobel committee holds a “Dialogue” on a specific topic and invites experts on the topic to not only speak to a large public forum, but to interact with the Nobel winners and attend the ceremony and dinner. This year the theme is “Water Matters.”  Maude has been given the honour of both speaking at this week-long event and of being a part of the expert dialogue on water, where she will no doubt use the opportunity to highlight the importance of fighting for water justice at the local level.

Back home in Guelph, we’ll keep fighting too!

Lin Grist

for the Guelph Chapter of the Council of Canadians