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2012 Federal Budget: ‘Where is water in the budget?’

The 2012 federal budget, Economic Action Plan 2012: Our plan for jobs, growth and long-term prosperity (EAP 2012), was released late yesterday afternoon. The details of how the various cuts will impact public service jobs and federal departments will be revealed over the coming months. Reflective of the concerns of people across Canada on the cuts to programs, jobs and services, 16 protestors interrupted Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s speech to demand “Where are we in the budget?” It is also clear that the Harper government failed to adequately prioritize key water issues in the budget.

Little improvement for drinking water in First Nation communities

The EAP 2012 allocated $330.8 million to water and wastewater systems in First Nation communities over the next two years. This is similar to the $165 million that the Harper government has been allocating annually since 2008 . This falls short of the $470, 000 called for under the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater (NAFNWW) ($4.7 billion over ten years). This falls even shorter of the $1.6 billion (with $1.25 billion for the next four years) demanded for by the Alternative Federal Budget (AFB). The AFB’s demand is based on the Assembly of First Nation’s call for $6.6 billion to address the water and wastewater systems of 417 communities found to be at risk under the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater (NAFNWW). The funding also falls short of the $1.2 billion required to meet the federal government’s own protocols for safe water and wastewater. In 2009, the $165 million was allocated to build or upgrade 18 water and wastewater plants. While plant costs vary widely, this averages to about $ 9.17 million per plant. If costs are similar, the funding allocated under the EAP 2012 will again only be able to build or upgrade approximately 18 water and wastewater plants leaving close 400 water and wastewater systems still at medium to high risk.

Despite recent tabling of Bill S-8, Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, the fact that the Harper government only slightly increased the budget for water and wastewater in First Nation communities (from $300 million to $300.8 million over two years) is a clear indication that they do not intend to act “to ensure that First Nations have access to safe and reliable drinking water.”

A continued push on water privatization in municipalities

The EAP 2012 restated the federal government’s commitment to the $33 billion for the seven-year Building Canada plan. Under this plan, $1.25 billion was allocated to the Public-Private Partnerships Fund (P3 Fund) which is a fund that explicitly promotes privatization by only funding Public-Private Partnerships in water and wastewater, transportation and communications. Some communities like Abbotsford and Mission have fought and won against P3 in their communities because of potential for increased costs, lack of transparency and accountability, loss of jobs and other problems.

New funding for the Great Lakes falls off the radar

Despite Environment Minister Peter Kent’s pledge on World Water Day “to realize a vision of healthy, prosperous lakes,” there was no new funding committed for Great Lakes protection in yesterday’s budget. So while Minister Kent’s World Water Day speech notes that the $3.3 million (stemming from the March 2011 budget) will be contributed to the Great Lakes this is a drop from the approximately $10 million from last year and an embarrassing contrast to the $300 million committed by the US government.

How we move forward

While the Harper government failed to recognize the importance of upholding the human right to water and sanitation for people in Canada by providing funding for drinking water and sanitation and water protection, the Council of Canadians continues to pressure the government to fulfill its international obligations with respect to the human right to water and sanitation.

In order to fight water privatization, we continue to encourage municipalities to become a Blue Community.

As well, the Council of Canadians has been working to defend the Great Lakes as a commons, public trust and a protected bio-region including our fight on the nuclear shipments in the Great Lakes and protecting the lakes from toxic fracking wastewater. We will be launching a speaking tour featuring Maude Barlow around the Great Lakes in May to spread the message .

As Maude Barlow says in Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever, the “notion of the Commons is a very old one. A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own.” The public trust doctrine would entrench in legislation the governments duty protect and make decisions about our water sources for the common good and prevent them from being appropriated for private gain. Designating the Great Lakes as a protected bioregion would ensure that the Great Lakes were governed as integrated watershed.

The essence of our work on the Great Lakes commons is to empower people and communities to become stewards of the Great Lakes – to realize their human right to the waters of the Great Lakes but also their responsibility to protect the Lakes. As Maude notes, “Our starting point is in the cities, towns, villages, hamlets and farms that ring the Great Lakes, and with the people and communities that live on and love them. Our organizational goal is to get communities around the Great Lakes, as well as the myriad of existing community and environmental groups, to become better linked to one another through the connecting narrative of a Commons discourse.”

And with the daunting budget released yesterday that did not prioritize the environment, water, public health and people, connecting with one another to defend a society based on the commons is a promising way forward on how we can protect the environment, our water sources and critical public services.