YOURSELVES FOR A WATER FIGHT
The Toronto Star
Water was a major topic in the free trade debate in the
1980s, at least on this side of the border, where there
was talk of fantastic schemes like the Great Replenishment
and Northern Development (GRAND) canal.
(The GRAND's proponents envisaged building a dam at
the top of James Bay, to keep the sea water out and to
collect the fresh water that flows into the bay from both
the Ontario and Quebec sides. Then a canal would be constructed
to take that water southw ard to top up the Great Lakes,
where it would be siphoned off by thirsty Americans.)
The Americans pooh-poohed such talk and denied any interest
in taking Canadian water. But tellingly, water was not,
in the end, exempted from the free trade deal.
Still, absent any concrete manifestation of American
interest, the concerns ebbed until 1998, when a small
Northern Ontario company got a permit from the Ontario
environment ministry to ship 600 million litres of Great
Lakes water all the way to Asia.
That sounds like a lot of water, but it is actually a drop in the Great Lakes
bucket - barely a third of Toronto's daily consumption.
There were fears, however, that the export of even this
small amount of water would set a precedent for American
demands for more, which Canada could not refuse under
the free trade deal. So the Ontario government withdrew
the permit and said it would pr ohibit any bulk water
exports, as did Ottawa.
But the episode prompted the boosters of water exports
- in the financial press and elsewhere - to ask why water
should be treated differently than any other commodity.
We sell the Americans all the natural gas and wheat
and lumber that we can. So why not sell them our water
when we have more than we could possibly use ourselves?
There are a couple of answers to this question.
First, we don't have as much water as we think we do.
Water is often called a renewable resource, because
rain replenishes the lakes and rivers.
But unlike food, which we grow in increasing amounts
to satisfy the rising appetites of the world population,
the amount of water is static, as Canadian author Marq
de Villiers notes in his recently released book, Water
``The trouble with water - and there is trouble with
water - is that they're not making any more of it. They're
not making any less, mind, but no more either - there
is the same amount of water on the planet now as there
was in prehistoric times. People , however, they're making
more of - many more, far more than is ecologically sensible
- and all those people are utterly dependent on water
for their lives.''
Thus, the worldwide demand for water tripled from 1950
to 1990 and continues to grow exponentially.
Worse, the supply of usable water is shrinking because
we have polluted much of what we have, in Canada and elsewhere.
The source of this pollution is not just archetypal
industrialists pouring toxic chemicals down the drain
but also farmers with their pesticides and herbicides
and individual households with every flush of the toilet
or chemical treatment of suburban law ns.
With rising demand and shrinking supply, the remaining
good water is increasingly valuable. If we lock ourselves
into a long-term, irreversible water diversion project
now, we may deeply regret it later.
Secondly, diversion projects have a sad history of unintended
negative consequences, as de Villiers convincingly demonstrates.
These go beyond the extinction of some obscure species
- a trivialization favoured by diversion proponents -
to the devastation of whole regions.
Take, for example, the Aral Sea in the southern reaches
of the old Soviet Union. it was once the world's fourth
largest lake. Then the Soviets began building dams and
canals on the two rivers that fed into the Aral Sea to
divert water to the region's cot ton farms.
As a result, the Aral has been reduced to three small,
salty puddles and is well on its way to becoming a desert.
It is an ecological catastrophe known as ``the quiet Chernobyl.''
Any significant diversion of Canadian water to the United
States could have similarly negative consequences for
But what if the Americans just take the water from their
side of the Great Lakes?
They wouldn't do that, would they? After all, they signed
the Boundary Waters Treaty with us in 1909, and it effectively
regulates transboundary water disputes through the agency
of the highly respected International Joint Commission.
Well, the Americans did it to Mexico. By draining off
the Colorado River upstream to fill their swimming pools
and irrigate their farms, the Americans left the Mexicans
with little to spare.
Of course, drawing down the Great Lakes could adversely
affect the Americans who live on their shores as well
as the Canadians. But if the Americans become desperate
enough, they might take the chance.
And desperation is in the air, or the water, in the
The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the midwestern
U.S. from South Dakota to Texas and provides the water
to irrigate farms that would otherwise not exist, is being
rapidly depleted. Experts estimate that 60 per cent of
it is already gone, and there ar e predictions it will
run out by 2020 or even sooner if the hot, dry weather
Nor is the American water crisis confined to these midwestern
states. California and the southwestern U.S. are chronically
short of water, and in the eastern U.S. this summer, the
persistent drought prompted Washington to declare a state
of emergency. So me states have taken drastic steps -
criminalizing lawn watering, for example - to get householders
to reduce their demands on the water supply and preserve
what there is for the farmers, whose crops are withering.
So down the road, and maybe not too far down it, water
may take on a whole new dimension in the North American
political economy, and Canada had better be braced for
Of course, technology could come to the rescue. Sea
water could be turned into fresh water through the process
of desalination, as is done in the water-scarce Middle
East today. It's a costly process, but perhaps less costly
than the GRAND canal scheme.
There is also Adam Smith's ``invisible hand,'' which
should reduce demand for water by raising the price as
it becomes more valuable. Right now the water problem
is exacerbated by its sale at heavily subsidized rates
to American farmers.
We can only hope. Otherwise, if the 20th century was
the century of technology, with man creating machines
to control and overcome nature, then the 21st could be
the century of the environment, as nature fights back,
with water as one of her chief weapons.