Wednesday, October 25, 2000
Halifax Chronicle Herald

Water export bans all wet

By Brian Lee Crowley

THERE’S always somebody out there making some breathless claim about an imminent danger that threatens civilization as we know it. They infect others with their moral panic and, before you know it, governments are spooked and proposing half-baked policies to respond to the public outcry. But nobody stops to ask whether the sky is, in fact, falling.

The latest example is the rush by Ottawa and the provinces to ban water exports. To hear Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians tell their tale, you’d think that our neighbours to the south were a desert nation of sharp traders who will stop at nothing to swindle us out of our irreplaceable water. And of course, if we sell them a single drop, the Free Trade Agreement will oblige us to give up all control over our water and we’ll have to stand helplessly by while Americans suck the place dry.

Canadians always feel ambivalent about their brash U.S. cousins, so it doesn’t take much of this kind of larger-than-life myth-making to stimulate the Canuck paranoia gland. Thus, we have the spectacle of governments from one end of the country to the other falling all over themselves to ban water exports in self-righteous outrage at this Yankee threat to our sovereignty, dignity and environmental purity.

Pity that even a cursory look at the facts reveals these fears to be nothing other than groundless anxieties. And export bans won’t solve our real water challenges, but they certainly will deprive us of some modest economic opportunities.

Americans, contrary to popular opinion, are not beating down our doors looking for water. In fact, water consumption in the U.S. has declined by nine per cent in recent years, even while population has increased by 16 per cent. Moreover, they use less than a third of their available fresh water supply. They don’t need our water now, and are unlikely to in the near future.

What about all those massive water diversion projects that people talked about in the 1960s and ’70s, where huge trenches were going to be dug in the Rocky Mountains to take our northern river water to California? Those $100-billion projects were always just a promoter’s pipedream. The federal water inquiry of the mid-1980s studied this matter carefully and concluded: “There is no identifiable market for water diverted to the United States that would recoup the massive capital and operating costs.”

As for the argument that if we ever sell any of our water to the Americans, the Free Trade Agreement means we lose control of our water forever – dare I say it? – it just doesn’t hold water.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask Professor Peter Pearse, one of Canada’s foremost experts on natural resource management, and the man who chaired the federal water inquiry. Professor Pearse points out there is nothing in our trade laws or treaties that restricts us from adopting whatever conservation or environmental rules we want. Furthermore, independent experts in trade law, as well as Canadian government advisers and the International Joint Commission have all repeatedly said that water in rivers and streams is not covered by trade agreements and we are not obligated to develop or sell it if we don’t want to. The most eloquent proof of this truth, however, is that we already sell water to the Americans. Water utilities in Vancouver, St. Stephens, N.B., Coutts, Alta., and Gretna, Man., all sell water to their neighbours on the other side of the border, and the trade police have not arrived to order us to start pumping Lake Winnipeg dry.

The proposals to sell tankers full of water from Lake Gisborne in Newfoundland, or Lake Superior, like all such proposals to date, involve such small quantities of water as to be completely innocuous, in large part because the economics of such schemes are very weak. The Nova Group proposal, for example, would have taken about 90 minutes worth of the outflow of the Great Lakes. It would take literally thousands of Nova Group projects to equal the amount of water that the Americans divert every year from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi. That’s why the best strategy for protecting our water resources lies in working through the International Joint Commission to control everybody’s use of border waters such as the Great Lakes, regardless of whether it’s for domestic consumption or export.

There is doubtless some modest market for Canadian water outside our borders. Since about 80,000 cubic metres of fresh water flow out of Canada every second and into the ocean or across the border, taking some small part of it and selling it for a good price hardly seems high treason. After all, every barrel of oil and pound of zinc Canada produces and sells is gone forever. Yet those businesses are perfectly respectable, while realizing some economic benefit from a properly managed renewable resource like water is today thought to be profoundly un-Canadian.

The moral of the story? You can lead policy-makers to water, but you can’t make them think.