The Wellington Water Watchers are a non-profit organization run by volunteers (largely Guelph-based citizens) whose primary aim is to protect local water and spread awareness among the public. Over the last few months, the group has received widespread media attention following their campaign against Nestlé in the fight against bottled water—a story that has been dubbed as David versus Goliath.
Representatives from the group, Mike Balkwill and Karen Rathwell, were invited by professor Andrea Muehlebach to speak at the weekly ANT461H5S seminar regarding their campaign against Nestlé’s right to bottle and sell ground water in Ontario. This was not a regular speaking invitation though—in fact, fourth-year anthropology students led the talk, as they questioned the two WWW representatives on various topics, such as whether grassroot organizations were the most effective way to campaign, if the media was beneficial to the cause or not, and what students themselves could do to help to reduce bottled water in their own communities.
Muehlebach began the seminar with a brief background on the WWW and their work these last few months. “The [WWW] led to the moratorium on water abstraction,” she said, referring to the fact that last October, the federal government issued a two-year moratorium against bottling companies seeking to gain permits for removing groundwater from new sites, or for removing an increasing quantity of water at a current site, within Ontario.
“Having worked a lot with activists, I knew of course that there must be a big group of people behind this [campaign], because you can’t do something as amazing as basically push for a moratorium on water abstraction in Ontario and win with just one person,” said Muehlebach. This thought prompted her to reach out to the mass mobilization behind the campaign: the WWW, and invite the group to her weekly seminar (Advanced Seminar in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology).
One of the students present, Naomi Escoffery, a fourth-year in the Exceptionalities in Human Learning program, began the interview by asking the two WWW representatives about the history of the group and how they mobilized the public, and their volunteers, to stand up against Nestlé.
To provide perspective, Rathwell first focused on the value of water.
“We have to go back to a place where we all appreciate how sacred water is—and that we have a responsibility to take care of it,” said Rathwell. She emphasized that water is the essence of life, since water forms approximately 70 percent of the human body.
Rathwell is a retired educator with a career spanning 28 years, and was also the principal of an elementary school at one point. During this time, a public speaking contest was held. One of the children taking part in the contest spoke about the selling of bottled water, and quoted David Suzuki: “One of the simplest ways to curb global warming is to stop buying bottled water.”
This quote resounded deeply with Rathwell—and made her realize that bottled water involves both costs and environmental damage associated with pumping out groundwater, multiple trucks distributing this extracted water, and even the plastic packaging used to store the bottled water. This changed her perspective entirely, and later, upon switching schools, she went on to collaborate with the WWW on the project “Message In A Bottle,” where 40,000 bottles were distributed among children in schools to encourage the use of re-useable bottles. Upon retiring as an educator, Rathwell then put her time and energy into the WWW and the issue of bottled water.
Rathwell was in her fifth year as an activist with the organization, when in mid-2016, the WWW’s campaign against Nestlé began.
Balkwill (WWW’s Campaign Director) stated that the story started south of Guelph in Aberfoyle, where one of Nestlé Waters Canada’s bottling factory can be found. According to both Balkwill and the WWW’s website, in 2011, Nestlé Waters Canada was granted a five-year renewal of their water permit, which would allow them to bottle up to 3.6 million litres of ground water a day. This permit was up for renewal in 2016—and the WWW were preparing for this moment.
“In the Christian tradition, David and Goliath is an important story,” said Balkwill. In this story, Balkwill characterized David as the WWW, while Goliath represented the Nestle company.
The summer of 2016 was a dry one. In fact, there was a drought. While Nestle had voluntarily reduced the amount of water being abstracted in Aberfoyle, they continued pumping out groundwater in this drought period. There had been no update on the permit process yet. According to Balkwill, the regulations are structured so that if the government does not review the permit documentation in time, the permit application is “automatically extended until the government does their part.”
“On August 1, […] we got up on our hind legs, and in false outrage—because we knew what the rules were—we said: ‘How can you let Nestle continue to pump water in a drought?’” said Balkwill. “The media went nuts.”
In the middle of the media and public protests, an iconic picture was captured. A young girl was photographed, holding up a sign that said: “Dear Kathleen Wynne, I’m 13 years old. Please leave some water for me —Molly.”
This outrage, public protesting, and media attention helped push the federal government towards a moratorium on bottled water.
“If it hadn’t been for Nestlé, if it hadn’t been [for the] WWW, who had been preparing for this moment for 10 years, if it hadn’t been that we live in the social media era, if it hadn’t been for Molly, if it hadn’t been for the drought—but it [all] did happen [resulting in a moratorium],” said Balkwill.
However, the moratorium is not the end of this issue; it is simply a chance for the government to conduct its own research on the matter. “For me, I’m all about the science. I’m a teacher—I love facts,” says Rathwell. “But it’s not always about the science here, it’s about the morals.”
There is also the matter of data being interpreted differently by both Nestlé and the WWW—there is no neutral judge nor map of all the ground water resources present in Ontario. As the government continues its research during the moratorium, and the WWW continue debating with Nestlé representatives, the water bottling companies can continue pumping out groundwater.
The remainder of the group interview discussed topics such as whether protesting has been effective, which prompted Balkwill to state that the WWW are not trying to change Nestle’s mind or policy, but instead attempting to pressure Wynne’s government instead. This is about reframing the issue of bottled water as an issue about values.
“Water is essential to life. [In fact], our slogan is that water is for life—not profit. We’re trying to force a choice on the public,” said Balkwill. He further elaborated by stating that everyone has an “issue,” such as paying back loans, homelessness, or living on social assistance.
“How do we get this issue in front of people who are very concerned about something else? We have to polarize the question in a way that people have to pay attention to it,” said Balkwill. For example, Black Lives Matter (TO) polarized their issue when they halted the Pride Parade or camped out in front of the police headquarters, used the media to bring attention to their cause, and forced the public to pick a side.
“Part of the strategy is to make a question and make people choose which side they’re on,” said Balkwill. “And what the WWW are saying: ‘Are you on the side where water is for life—or are you on the side that water is for profit?’”