Concerns about bulk water exports to the U.S. resurface

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason writes, "Waukesha, Wis., is running out of fresh water. Located just a few miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, the city of 70,000 wants to use the lake to replenish its quickly diminishing aquifer – a request that has touched off an international dispute."

"Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs wants to protect the lake’s already low levels, which he says have affected everything from industry to tourism. But Waukesha officials say they would be withdrawing the equivalent of a teaspoon from a swimming pool."

"Mr. Hobbs believes granting Waukesha’s application for access to the lake would set a dangerous precedent and touch off potential water wars. Some news for the mayor: It may be too late. It looks like those wars are coming anyway. According to Canada’s ambassador to the United States, water is the new oil. In a recent interview, Gary Doer said that by the end of the decade, the pressure on water quality and quantity will be immense. He predicted that water debates and disputes between the two countries will make the clash over the Keystone XL pipeline 'look silly' by comparison."

Doer said, "I think five years from now we will be spending a lot of our time diplomatically and a lot of our work on dealing with water. We have 20 per cent of the fresh water (in the world) in the Great Lakes. We share three oceans. We have the Passamaquoddy dispute (Canada opposes liquefied natural gas tankers transiting Canadian waters in Head Harbour Passage in New Brunswick.) We have the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake of the Woods. We have the Missouri River diversion. We have the Flathead River. We’ve got the Columbia River Treaty... We’re blessed with a lot of water, but we cannot take it for granted. We have to manage it more effectively and that means waterflows south to north and north to south… There will be pressure on water quality and water quantity. I think it will make a debate about going from 85 to 86 pipelines look silly."

Mason comments, "It isn’t hard to imagine (this scenario). Many parts of the U.S. are in the midst of a freshwater disaster. Parts of California are experiencing their worst drought in modern history. Some communities are at risk of running out of water within months, a situation that could put new pressure on Canada to export water from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin."

And he adds, "Some hold the view that the moment an ounce of our water is exported south, it will become subject to the provisions of the North American free-trade agreement. And that once that tap is turned on, there may be no stopping it – Canada’s water resources will suddenly become a U.S. national security concern. While that may seem alarmist now, don’t rule out the possibility. The pressure on these precious water supplies is growing by the day – just ask Mr. Doer."

The Council of Canadians believes that Canada needs a comprehensive national water policy that bans all bulk water exports, excludes water from NAFTA and recognizes water as a public trust.

In 1999, the federal and provincial governments entered into a voluntary agreement banning bulk water exports. Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow has stated, “A voluntary accord is just that — voluntary — and does not bind any province in any meaningful way to protect its water resources now or in the future. Only the federal government has the jurisdiction to impose a meaningful national ban on water exports and only the federal government can deal with the trade threat it has unleashed on the provinces.” Any province that approves bulk water exports, would automatically put pressure on every other province because the NAFTA Chapter 11 provision could be used by a company denied permission to export water from any other province.

In 2009, then federal environment minister Jim Prentice argued against the recognition of the human right to water because, "You get into difficult questions such as do countries that have access to water have a legal obligation to export it to countries that don't. Clearly, it's a complex issue." Barlow and our ally Ashfaq Khalfan responded by saying, "Recognition of the right to water in no way affects a country's sovereign right to manage its own water resources. The resolution tabled at the Human Rights Council (in March 2008) specifically stated that it focused on the local and national level, and emphasized the need to leave aside any transboundary water issues."

In 2012, we critiqued Bill C-383, a Conservative private member’s bill supported by the Harper government. That legislation was touted as a means to ban bulk water exports. But Barlow stated, "Bill C-383 does not apply to water resources in the North, which have been the subject of ridiculous proposals by right-wing think tanks. Therefore Bill C-383 is effectively not a comprehensive ban on bulk water exports." Water campaigner Emma Lui added, "We are glad to see that the bill now covers interbasin transfers into international rivers. However, Bill C-383 still does not cover non-boundary waters. It is still highly problematic that the Act narrows the definition of water removals and diversions to bulk removals of 50,000 litres or more and exempts water in manufactured goods including beverages."

Further reading
National Post promotes bulk water exports
Council counters Fraser report promoting bulk water exports
Former CIBC chief economist promotes bulk water exports