Tiny Rural Town Says Fight For Its Water Is A Social Justice Issue
As the Australian east coast suffers through a historic drought, a small rural town is fighting to keep its water out of bottles and in the ground.
In Victoria's north-east, a tiny rural community is taking on a multinational company guns blazing in a bid to protect its water.
Stanley, with a population of just over 350 people, is an agricultural hub with long-established fruit and nut orchards.
But for almost two years beverage giant Asahi, owner of brands Schweppes, Frantelle and Gatorade, has been extracting water from the water table beneath the town's plateau under licence from a local property. From Stanley, the water is transported to Albury, NSW where it is bottled.
In April, the town's residents were ordered to pay $90,000 in legal costs after a failed attempt to have the water extraction licence overturned in the Victorian and Administrative Tribunal and the Supreme Court, led by community group Stanley Rural Community Inc.
But Stanley isn't backing down.
While they may have lost the legal battle, the town is committed to taking on the social justice war.
"The issue is that Stanley has no municipal or town water," chairman of Stanley Rural Community Inc. Ed Tyrie told ten daily.
"So we turn the tap on with no expectation that there’s a municipal organisation behind our water to ensure we have some. Our water is precious to us and on that basis we believe that taking the water for bottling is just morally and ethically wrong."
With the support of global consumer advocacy organisation SumOfUs, an online petition calling for Asahi to stop bottling the town's water has accumulated over 122,000 signatures.
Mayor of Indigo Shire Jenny O'Connor said the area is committed to continuing the crusade against the beverage giant.
“This is about a tiny rural community taking on a multinational with basically unlimited resources," she said.
"Water is the most precious thing we have and diverting it away from food production, in a region reliant on agriculture, is unconscionable."
While much of Australia's east coast is in the middle of the worst drought in a century, Stanley is one of the more fortunate agricultural areas currently not considered drought affected.
But Senior Campaigner at SumOfUs Nick Haines told ten daily during Australia's current drought crisis, the way water resources are utilised should be under intense scrutiny.
"Rainfall this year in the Stanley area is almost 40 percent below yearly averages," Haines said in a statement.
"Drought and a changing climate should force us to confront questions everywhere about how we allocate a scare resource like water and whether it's appropriate to divert it from food production in a high agricultural value area, to produce a product like bottled water which removes it from the system permanently."
Tyrie said the irony of taking water from Stanley into drought-affected Albury for bottling is "mesmerising".
"This is bigger than Stanley. It’s about communities and ecosystems that can be affected by Asahi and multinationals rolling into areas taking their water," Tyrie said.
"Once they’ve taken it and it's gone, they just roll out of town and find it somewhere else. We have to continue to live on with what’s left."
Ten daily reached out to Asahi for comment.