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Great Lakes Article:

Ian Urquhart  
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 Canada.

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 U.S.

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 persists.

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 it.

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.


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