Water - Science, Social Studies, Engagement

The man in that picture up there is my dad. He's working on a wharf on a lake that's part of a water and ecosystem his dad - a onetime county councilor - was once hired by the provincial Minister of Lands and Mines to protect. When I was very young, we moved into a village that drew its water from a near-by river, stored it in a former CN water tank, and dispensed it through old pipes in a rather limited and hit-and-miss fashion. The river received run-off from local farms, small industry, and various residential septic systems of greater or lesser efficiency. It was a bad deal for everybody.

In time, as mayor, my dad oversaw the creation of a new water system, originating from a new town well, and a sewerage treatment system that kept most of the pollutants out of the river. This was accompanied by improvements to the volunteer fire department and the installation of fire hydrants. It was also accompanied by an unpopular rise in rates, and a fair amount of grumbling.

I mention this because I'm awfully proud of my dad, but also because I want to indicate that I'm not a complete idiot when it comes to the politics of water and the guarding of ecosystems.

I know literacy and basic adult education organizations have to avoid doing advocacy work, lest they have their knuckles rapped by Revenue Canada. But nothing absolves us of our responsibility to help learners understand how government works or how to write a letter to the editor or the import of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Adult literacy is inescapably "political" in that sense.

Even preparing someone to challenge the Social Studies GED involves thoughtful discussions about the party system or the pros and cons of free trade or MacDonald's National Policy.

Thus, I have both a professional and a personal (citizen's) interest in environmental, political or economic debates and developments. If I'm to do my job well, I need to know something useful about, say, global warming, or the recent economic contraction, or the fighting in Afghanistan.

Or about water as an endangered resource, and what us ordinary folks can do about it.

I assume I'm on the wrong side of history when it comes to the bottled water debate. They're probably right: I'm probably wrong. Oh, and on a related matter, I'd always assumed I was a fan of The Council of Canadians even if I'd only met them through media releases.

And yet.

Let's take the first topic. Here are the four points often made, put simply. (If I'm missing one let me know, but don't simply restate a point in different language):

1. We're taking water out of the ground, in specific locations (some quite large), at a rate that threatens the long term viability of those locations for residential or agricultural use (or, simply, as a home for plants and animals). Fair enough. This is a practice that needs to stop.

2. Too much plastic is being produced, used and discarded by the bottled water industry and its consumers. Well... yes, though this isn't a water-specific issue. It's true of many food or drink products. Are we talking about water or the plastics industry? I think we're talking about plastics, and I assume glass-bottled water would be no more acceptable over the long term because of point #1.

3. Bottled water is less safe and/or less palatable than municipal water. Wrong.

Maybe some bottled water is less safe or less tasty than some municipal water, but that's isn't the case everywhere. Let's set aside the boil orders I've been under (5 in the past two years) here in Saint John. Even when the service is at its peak, my tap water turns my sink and shower stall blue, leaves deposits in my pots and kettle, and frequently smells quite bad. None of those things has ever been true of water I have purchased.

Yes, yes. I know the bit about how legal health standards are applied to city water systems but not to water companies. I'm not talking about standards: I'm talking about outcomes. Let me say it again: the water coming from my tap is dirtier and smellier than the water coming from the plastic container on my counter. Campaigns to prevent me buying bottled water are campaigns that threaten my quality of life and probably my long-term health.

4. The choice to drink bottled water is a result of industry hype and marketing, not thoughtful personal choice. Um... no. See point #3. And anyway, this claim is simply a personal attack, a sort of "shaming", meant to evade the reality of the general public voting ("wrong") with their pocket book.

I feel for the mayor of my city. I know he wants what's best. Saint John has about 75,000 souls living inside the city proper at any one time. If a third of these spend $2 a day on bottled water, that's $50,000 per day. Maybe I'm exaggerating. Let's make it $20,000 per day. That's still $600,000 per month or $7,200,000 per year.

Imagine having an extra 7 million a year to spend on water system up-grades! In 5 years we'd have one sparkling water system!

But few of us want to spend that money up-front for clean, safe, good tasting water 5 years from now - especially if it means not drinking what we want right now. (We might be okay with raised property taxes and service fees, properly explained, but only if industrial users paid the same rates - and anyway it's not going to happen because our major property-owners use their ownership of local media to convince everyone our property taxes are already too high.)

The city can force its employees to leave their bottled water at home, as can sympathetic private companies. But that just means people will be drinking iced teas, juices or soft drinks until a new council is voted in.

K. Topic Two. When I was on the Council of Canadians website, reading their news bits and essays on water use and bottled water, I found no place to comment.

There was plenty of opportunity to join or donate to the cause (turns out that was the same thing). I could have sent an email "for more information on how you can support The Council of Canadians." But there was no place to pose a public question or join a discussion.

(The closest I got was discussions on rabble.ca, and I gotta tell you, that particular bully-board is not a forum I would ever take part in, let alone introduce a learner to.)

Why does this matter? Because global warming and environmental destruction scare me and should scare you. Because the power of the resource industries scare me and should scare you. Because citizen engagement is the only way I see out of the mess we're in.

And because helping adults become politically engaged citizens is an essential part of adult and community literacy work.

But, listen, engaging citizens also means talking with them in polite, open public forums, and allowing them to ask questions or even disagree. It doesn't mean telling people "Drink from the tap - trust us, it's safer," and then leaving no place to comment.

So, I'll send this text in an email to the Council. They deserve to know. But then I'll be done with them.

Maybe the Green Party would like to have a conversation. I'll let you know.


Wendell said...

I wanted to shared their timely and polite response

Hello Wendell,

Thank you for your e-mail, we truly appreciate your interest.

Our campaign is to stop the sale of single and purchase of single use water bottles in public facilities. We are not calling for legislation that would prevent you from consuming bottled water at home. We recognize that the situation in Canada is far from perfect and we are fighting for a national water policy that ensures a stronger public drinking water system, so that no one in Canada is forced to purchase water to meet their hydration needs. Water is a human right and our effort to ban the sale of bottled water in schools and municipal facilities is based on the premise that we should have access to clean, safe drinking water in our public facilities. We also need our governments to know that bottled water is not an alternative to poor access to water in communities like yours.

I hope this clarifies our position for you.


Hélène Bertrand
Campaigns & Communications
The Council of Canadians

Wendell said...

"our effort to ban the sale of bottled water in schools and municipal facilities is based on the premise that we should have access to clean, safe drinking water"

I would agree with the premise - Canadians, if anyone, should have access to clean, safe drinking water.

You can decide about the method for yourself.

OzGrace said...

i have to admit that i didn't read all of this because it's a bit long and i'm not in a good mood - but i am impressed that your dad was mayor: that goes some way to explaining your community spirit - and i'm absolutely WITH you on the OBSCENITY of bottling water in plastic and selling it.

Wendell said...

It certainly does seem wrong that we're bottling water.

But my concern is a little different. This organization wants to "ban the sale of bottled water in schools" without, beforehand, ensuring the quality of the tap-water children drink. (Simply repeating that 'tap water is safe' doesn't change the facts experienced by many tap-water drinkers.) That smacks of the worst kind of authoritarianism, and it is not something the left needs.

Uneasy about this authoritarian, "we experts know what's right for you" tone, I looked for a place on the website to comment. There wasn't any: there were only places to give money.

That smacked of authoritarianism of a different kind.

And that's what prompted the post.