Intervenor: Vol 25. No. 2 April-June, 2000

The Case Against Water Exports

Canada is at an historic crossroads. With little effort we could simply allow increasing pressures to transform Canadian freshwater into another commodity governed by the marketplace, trade agreements and large corporations. Or, we can take a different path that embraces conservation as a national policy; a policy that would underscore a ban on water exports as well as allowing us to provide assistance to countries in truly desparate need.

Evidence mounts that a conservation policy is the only rational choice. The apparent abundance of Canadian freshwater is largely a myth. In terms of sheer volume, our water resources are staggeringly huge. Yet our freshwater ecosystems have evolved and depend upon the quantities of water in them. Within natural fluctuations, Canada's freshwater ecosystems depend upon water levels remaining consistant.

Canadians embrace the myth that Canada's supplies of water are boundless and consequently are the second most wasteful users of water in the world. Yet, demand for water is increasing across the country. In North America, the growth of municipalities is driving the thirst for water. Ontario's landscape has fast become a battleground for developers seeking perpetual supplies of water for exponential growth in the future.

Another part of this Canadian myth of abundance is the idea that water is renewable. In the Great Lakes, for example, only one percent of the water is renewable while the other 99 percent was stored here at the time of the last glacier melt some 10,000 years ago. There is only so much water to use before we start mining into its capital rather than living off the interest, whether it is the Great Lakes or any other watershed.

Along with our wasteful practices, we are disturbingly ignorant in understanding and predicting how these freshwater ecosystems work. As noted by Dr. David Hansen, a water engineering professor at Dalhousie University, the "on-going closure of most of Canada's river monitoring stations will certainly undermine the ability to make informed decisions about the sustainability (or unsustainability) of such transfers."

The huge wild card in all of this is climate change. The science indicates that the northern hemisphere will be more greatly affected by climate change than elsewhere. While the precise role played by climate change may be uncertain, Canada through the 1990s experienced a long list of extreme events such as more floods, the ice storm or unusual drought conditions. The unpredictability of climate change should instill a precautionary approach on any decisions on any significant water removals.

Apart from climate change, another uncertainty strikes at the very root of our control over our own resources. Under the trade regimes now in place, once Canada starts large scale transfers of water, we will simply lose control over it. The interplay of both the NAFTA and GATT (Canada is a signatory to both) makes it difficult for Canada to ban water exports outright. Moreover, Canada must treat NAFTA trading partners in the same way Canadian nationals are treated, otherwise, foreign interests can bring a suit alleging their "rights" were violated. There is already a suit already against the federal government by Sun Belt, a California firm claiming a contract to export B.C. water before that province placed a mortorium on water exports. This claim is asking Canadian taxpayers for billions for the firm's loss of profit potential.

But there is hope. Canada could rely on an exception in the trade regime and ban water exports by basing its actions on well supported evidence that such measures were needed to protect human and environmental health and conserve the resource. A national conservation strategy would not only serve the purpose of protecting our future water supply but provide a foundation for Canada to assert its sovereignty over its own resources and withstand any trade challenges which come our way.

The ability to control the destiny of one's water resources will be of profound importance this century. Canada will be faced with vociferous demands for water. The U.S. will continue to eye Canadian water while carrying on inherently unsustainable water practices like farming in deserts . Exporting water to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of the Southwest, especially through some large scale diversion, serves to encourage these unsustainable water uses.

The plea for conservation and against export, however, is not just about looking after Canadian self interest. The world is becoming water poor. As noted by the U.N. Environmental Program's Global Environment Outlook 2000 report, the shortage of clean water is one of the most pressing global problems. If Canada wants to do the right thing, it should direct its thinking to helping out the world's truly water poor. Already 20% of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water.

Canada could assist by exporting its knowledge and expertise on how to use water within the boundaries drawn by nature. Where there truly is a humanitarian crisis, the conservation approach in Canada would put the nation in a much better position to respond. Exporting our knowledge on water conservation will help far more people in need than shipping expensive bottled water to be consumed by a privileged few.

Rather than exporting water, Canada should seize the opportunity to set a global example by developing a sustainable water policy. A conservation strategy will protect, rather than squander, our water resources. It would be a true legacy for future generations and help the world to realize that water is a finite and precious resource.

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer and CELA's Executive Director