emotion, likely to kill export idea
The Ottawa Citizen
Water is heavy: 1,000 litres of water weighs a tonne. Pump
water hundreds of kilometres through a pipeline, or pour
it into a tanker and ship it any distance at all, and water
Just how expensive is a matter
of debate. Estimates range from US$1,000 to $3,000 an
acre foot (there are about 1.2 million litres in an acre
Residents of cities in California
now pay about US$600 an acre foot for water, and farmers
as little as $50 an acre foot.
Are Americans so desperate for
water that they would pay the cost of piping it or shipping
it from Canada? That is the essential question in the
often emotional great water debate in Canada.
Last month, U.S. President George
W. Bush confirmed the fears of the most vocal opponents
of bulk water shipments. Mr. Bush told reporters the United
States would be interested in piping Canadian water down
to the thirsty southwestern states and that he would raise
the issue with Prime Minister Jean Chretien at the G8
Summit in Genoa.
The federal government immediately
responded by insisting bulk exports of water from Canada
weren't on the table.
The Council of Canadians, which
has led the campaign against water exports with the support
of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian
Environmental Law Association, pounced on Mr. Bush's statement.
Maude Barlow, the chairwoman of the council, said Mr.
Bush had been candid enough to tell the truth, and that
Mr. Chretien has suggested he is willing "turn the tap."
"Canadians wanted bulk exports
banned and the Liberals are opening the floodgates," she
The crux of the argument from
the opponents of bulk water shipments is that under the
terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, water
is not protected, and that if Canada permits the sale
of bulk water, it becomes a tradable commodity. Once water
is a commodity, a giant water valve will be turned on
and stuck in that position.
The council has called on the
Chretien government to pass legislation prohibiting the
export of water, and has linked the trade of water with
the trend across North America to hire private firms to
deliver water services.
"What is more fundamental to democracy
than control over the water we drink?" asks Judy Darcy,
CUPE's national president. "Access for all Canadians to
a basic source of life is what's at stake. Multinational
corporations are trying to privatize water services in
hundreds of Canadian municipalities and turn our water
resources into an export commodity. They can't buy the
air we breathe, so now they want to buy and control the
water we drink. What we are saying is simple: No water
Apart from Mr. Bush's statement,
the council appears to have evidence to back up its concerns.
On the East Coast, Newfoundland Premier Roger Grimes continues
to argue that his province should be permitted to export
water. A company called McCurdy Enterprises wants to export
49 billion litres of water a year from Newfoundland's
On the West Coast, a California
company, Sun Belt Water Inc., is taking Canada to court
under the terms of NAFTA to force B.C. to sell bulk water
to the U.S., and to claim millions of dollars in damages
for the business it says it has lost through Canada's
refusal to adhere to what it claims are the terms of the
For the council, most water issues
return to the question of exports and privatization. Early
this year, the council opposed a plan by the OMYA stone
manufacturing firm - the world's largest supplier of calcium
carbonate to the paper, paint, plastic, food and pharmaceutical
industries - to extract water from the Tay River near
While the residents of the area
were raising valid concerns about the ecological implications
of a plan to remove several million litres of water a
day from the small river, the council said the project
"may trigger much broader obligations for water exports
under the North American Free Trade Agreement."
Throughout the debate, the council
has raised concerns about the potential ecological damage
of bulk water shipments.
Canadian author Marq de Villiers
points out that the transfer of water on a large scale
from one basin to another is a risky business. A water
basin is the "hydrological cycle's recycling unit," he
writes, and we are "tampering with this life-support system,
with uncertain consequences."
But Mr. de Villiers notes that
what is missing from the bulk water debate is an acknowledgment
that water isn't anyone's property.
"Water is not 'ours' or 'theirs'
but the planet's. We use water, and it passes on, and
then it comes back to us. But it is not, surely, something
we should either hoard or prevent others from using."
Peter Gleick, a California water
guru who heads the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development,
Environment and Security, agrees that environmental and
social consequences should be the primary issue when appraising
any bulk water transfer proposals.
"I don't think water should be
exported from anywhere until local environmental needs
have been guaranteed, the local ecosystems have been protected,
and the local populations have been protected and their
needs are met," he says.
Despite these legitimate ecological
and social issues, the bottom line for bulk exports may
turn out to be economics, Mr. Gleick says.
"I actually think this enormous
controversy over bulk water exports is a little bit silly
because no one's going to be able to afford it," he says.
"That might not be true if we're talking about whether
Chicago wanted to take more water out of the Great Lakes,
but that's a different issue. I think that no one is going
to be able to afford to put water into tankers, move it
very far, and make any money.
"And frankly I think some of these
people who complain because they have been prohibited
from doing it, I think we've saved them a lot of money.
I think they should have been allowed to do it and go
What about the possibilities of
transferring water from one place to another in giant
plastic bags towed by ships? This system has been championed
on the Pacific coast by entrepreneur Terry Spragg, who
has developed water bags larger than the Goodyear blimp.
"I think that could be cheaper
than tankers, but even so it's not cheaper than improving
water-use efficiency," Mr. Gleick says. "It's not cheaper
than changing the allocation of water from farmers to
the cities. ... If a city can afford to pay $600 an acre
foot and farmers are paying $50 an acre foot, then the
cities could buy some water from the farmers, and everybody
would be happy. The cities could pay farmers $100 an acre
foot and they're getting cheap water and the farmers are
Sandra Postel, Mr. Gleick's counterpart
on the East Coast, at the World Water Project in Amherst,
Massachusetts, agrees that the economics don't favour
"It's got to be cost-competitive
with the next best alternative, which, in most cases where
the water would be shipped, is desalination," she says.
"Those costs, while still very high compared to traditional
water costs, have been coming down. It's funny, all of
the information I've seen on the ideas for shipping water
by tanker and all the phone calls I've gotten from various
companies interested in doing this, I've yet to see some
serious cost numbers. What does it cost to take water
from some part of Canada and ship it to China or the Middle
Ms. Postel also notes that bulk
water shipments would deliver water too expensive to use
"If we (Americans) are growing
wheat with water imported from Canada, nobody is going
to be able to afford the food."
The debate over bulk exports began
in earnest in the 1980s with a proposal, backed by former
prime minister Brian Mulroney and Quebec premier Robert
Bourassa, which would have dammed the mouth of James Bay
and diverted canals of water to dry regions of Canada
and the U.S. The project, called GRAND, the Great Replenishment
and Northern Development Canal Concept, included possibly
an aqueduct into the Great Lakes and then pipelines south
Further west, the North American
Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) proposed to dam most
rivers in B.C. and divert the water into the U.S. and
Mexico through hundreds of dams and canals. Mr. de Villiers
says the NAWAPA plan would have done more damage to the
environment than all the water diversions in America combined.
Neither of these heavily subsidized
mega projects (NAWAPA had a $500-billion U.S. price tag)
got off the ground. In the late 1980s, the Santa Barbara,
California, decided to build a desalination plant instead
of seeking water exports from Canada.
Elizabeth Brubaker, director of Environment Probe, a supporter
of privatization of municipal water systems, thinks the
bulk export debate is "a red herring." However she warned
that Canadians must remain on guard against subsidized water
"The mere lack of economic
efficiency doesn't prevent us from spending a lot of money
on a project sometimes," she says. "Some of the water
export proposals that have been pushed over the years
have been potential disasters."
The export issue reared its head
again in 1998 when Ontario granted the Nova Group of Sault
Ste. Marie permission to export millions of litres of
Lake Superior water by tanker to Asia. The Nova Group
withdrew its proposal after a storm of controversy on
both sides of the border.
The next year, the Canadian government
announced a bulk-water prohibition strategy, introducing
amendments to the International Boundary Waters Treaty
Act to prohibit bulk-water removal from boundary waters,
in particular the Great Lakes. Of all the possible sources
of water for the thirsty U. S., the Great Lakes are the
most obvious. The Great Lakes ecosystem holds 20 per cent
of the world's supply of fresh surface water. However,
rainfall and rivers supply only one per cent of the Great
Lakes water. The rest of the water is ancient glacial
Two years ago, the Canadian and
U.S. governments asked the International Joint Commission
to prepare a report on the bulk exports issue. The commission
was established by the Boundary Water Treaty of 1909 and
helps to regulate water diversion in the Great Lakes.
After holding public hearings,
the commission delivered its report in March last year.
It recommended that governments "should not permit any
new proposal for removal of water from the Great Lakes
Basin to proceed unless the proponent can demonstrate
that the removal would not endanger the integrity of the
Great Lakes Basin."
The commission said there should
be "no net loss" of water from the lakes and and that
any water that is taken must be returned in a condition
that protects the quality of the water.
Moreover, the commission argued
the era of major water diversions and transfers has passed.
After building a network of dams, reservoirs and canals,
the western U.S. is now focusing on ecosystem restoration
to try to undo the damage that has already been done.
The commission noted the western
U.S. has an option for water far less expensive than bulk
imports, namely the buying and leasing of water rights
from farmers, who consume 80 per cent of the water supply,
many of them growing low value crops such as corn and
alfalfa. Some farmers can make more money selling water
than growing food.
The commission also noted that
desalination is increasingly becoming a realistic alternative
to bulk water shipments.
"Although it seems clear that
climate change and continued reports of worldwide water
shortages will continue to keep discussion of bulk water
shipments alive, the cost of such shipments makes it unlikely
that there will be serious efforts to take Great Lakes
water to foreign markets, and cost will continue to serve
as an impediment to bulk shipments from coastal waters,"
the commission concluded.
The commission noted that a hidden
water transfer is already taking place, from aquifers
in the Great Lakes basin that recharge the lakes themselves.
"Groundwater withdrawals at rates
high enough to warrant concern" are already happening,
particularly in the Chicago area, where aquifer levels
have been dropping for more than two decades. Chicago
is also withdrawing surface water from the Great Lakes
basin at a rate of 4,300 cubic feet per second. Half the
water is for drinking and the rest is used to reverse
the flow of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Excess
water winds up in the Mississippi River.
The commission says we do not
understand the issue of groundwater consumption and recharge
in the Great Lakes, and there needs to be more aquifer
mapping and study of the role of groundwater in supporting
the ecological systems of the basin.
In June, the governors of the
eight states that border the Great Lakes and the premiers
of Ontario and Quebec agreed to limit exports of water
to inland municipalities. Any plan to pipe water out of
the lakes will require governments to consider whether
the diversion is environmentally sound.
The Council of Canadians said
it was disappointed that the commission failed to more
definitely recommend against bulk exports.
But the commission did address
the groups concerned about bulk transfers, admitting that
at public hearings many speakers felt the commission too
readily dismissed the threat of major water diversions.
"They indicated that while an
analysis of past proposals for mega-diversions indicates
that they may not have been feasible, at least from an
economic standpoint, this does not mean that proposals
of this kind could never be pursued for economic or other
"While the commission acknowledges
the anxiety expressed by some at the hearings, the commission
continues to believe that the era of major diversions
and water transfers in the United States and Canada has
"Barring significant climate change,
an overcoming of engineering problems and of numerous
economic and social issues, and an abandonment of national
environmental ethics, the call for such diversions and
transfers will not return."
No doubt questions will continue
to be raised about the possibility of Canadian water exports,
but, for now at least, one definite answer has been given.
Philip Lee's series, The Global
Water Crisis, can be read online at www.ottawacitizen.com.