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VIEW: ‘Manitoba should keep Leaky Exports report in mind’, says Rance

Laura Rance, editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, writes in an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press, “The report Leaky Exports: A portrait of the virtual water trade in Canada, …flags something (Manitoba) would do well to keep in mind in its post-flood water-management planning. Water, globally, is becoming increasingly precious. And control of it is something other countries are starting to take seriously, while Canadian policy-makers continue to take it for granted.”

“The Council of Canadians has news for those who collapse into pools of angst over the prospect of Canada selling its fresh water — particularly to the United States: we already are. This report isn’t talking about putting water into a pipeline, as is done with oil and natural gas. It is about ‘virtual water’, a measure of the volume of fresh water used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced. It includes the total volume used to produce the commodities, minerals and energy that constitute the bulk of our exports — everything from the water consumed to feed a plant or animal to water used to flush out the oil well or clean the barn.”

“Agriculture is by far the biggest user, consuming 70 per cent of Canada’s fresh water, the council says. …More than 60 per cent of Canada’s agricultural exports go to the United States. …But few stop to consider how much water has gone into producing those commodities. The council’s analysis says that to produce one kilogram of wheat, for example, 1,000 litres of water is used. Livestock products require five to 10 times more. So if you look at the Top 3 cereals — wheat, barley and oats — produced and exported from Canada, we export 40.2 bm3 of virtual water per year. That’s nearly twice the amount of annual discharge in the Athabasca River.”

“99 per cent of (our) cattle and hog exports (go to the United States). …It isn’t news to anyone that most of the commodities Canadian farmers grow are exported, or that our biggest export customer for livestock is the United States. With livestock, Canada exports 3.6 bm3 per year more than it imports, because it exports mostly water-intensive commodities like cattle and cattle commodities, while importing less water-intensive commodities such as chicken and mutton. The council, which has never been a big fan of free-trade agreements, also points out two American companies now control 95 per cent of Canada’s cattle industry and that American companies control more than 50 per cent of the tarsands operations.”

“Is this a problem? The trouble is, we don’t know. ‘Because Canada has more abundant water supplies than some other countries, successive provincial and federal governments have built their economies on the myth of abundance and the assumption that these supplies are unlimited,’ the report says. (The report says) ‘Many parts of Canada are facing some form of water crisis and nowhere is our groundwater properly mapped. Yet the practice of allowing almost unlimited access to our rivers, lakes and aquifers for commodity, energy and mineral production and export continues without public debate or oversight.'”

“The council stresses it is not calling for an end to all virtual water trade, only for greater awareness of virtual water exports in the hopes of more proactive water-management policies. That’s good advice for places such as southern Alberta, where analysts are already predicting future development will be constrained by water shortages. But it is perhaps even more poignant for places like Manitoba, where water-management policy is at serious risk of becoming water riddance.”

To read our 46-page report Leaky Exports, please go to http://canadians.org/water/documents/virtual-water-0511.pdf.