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Water (Equinox, 1990)

“I saw a graveyard of ships rotting in the dried-up seabed,” writes Sandra Postel in Pillar of Sand, her new book on the world’s water problems. “I stood on a seaside bluff outside the old port town of Mynak, but I saw no water – the coastline and the sea were 40 kilometers away. But to my eyes, the strangest and eeriest sight of all was the salt: vast areas of the land glisten white, like new-fallen snow.”

This is the shore – or was – of the Aral Sea in formerly Soviet Asia, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. The Aral Sea was the climatic anchor of this largely-desert region; it moderated extremes of heat and cold, supported a thriving fishery, and sustained small agricultural districts at the deltas of the two Himalayan rivers which fed it. In 1956, Soviet planners opened the first of several upstream canals, designed to irrigate the deserts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Before 1956, 50 cubic kilometers of water reached the sea; by the early 1980s, none did.

As the rivers shrank, they became more salty. Fresh water is never entirely fresh; as it flows over earth and stone it picks up various trace chemicals, chiefly salts. When the water arrives at its destination and can flow no further it evaporates, leaving the salts behind. That is why the ocean is salty, and why landlocked basins like the Aral Sea, the Dead Sea and Great Salt Lake are extremely salty. The same mechanism is at work in a big reservoir behind a dam, or in an irrigated field.

As the two rivers descended through a series of dams, turbines and irrigated fields, they became loaded not only with salt, but also with pesticide and fertilizer residues from the huge irrigated farms which had been established upstream. The receding waters of the Aral Sea exposed a wasteland of salty, polluted silt which was picked up by the wind and blown as far as Belorus, 2000 kilometres away. Locally, the concentration of toxins created an epidemic of throat cancer, made it dangerous for mothers to breast-feed their babies and killed one newborn child out of every ten.

I write these lines, walk into the kitchen and turn on the tap. Spring water from my well flows into my tumbler: clear, sweet, cold. And there is the Canadian dilemma, right there in my hand. I have plenty of good water, and people in Mynak might well kill for it. Ismail Serageldin, vice president of the World Bank, says flatly that “the wars of the next century will be about water.”


Like so many ecological flash-points, the problem of water is driven by population growth. Global population has doubled since 1950, and will double again in 30 years. The world’s renewable water consists of “run-off” – the water which falls as rain or snow and runs to the sea. Only one third of global run-off is accessible to humans, and we are using half of that already. In 30 years we may be using it all. What then?

Human beings have already captured the “easy” run-off with a multitude of dams and diversions. In a fine new book simply entitled Water (Stoddart, $34.95), Marq de Villiers notes that in 1900 the world had no dams higher than 15 meters. By 1950 there were 5,270; today there are 36,562. Almost all the world’s major rivers have been dammed, often several times, and the positive results – hydroelectricity, flood control, irrigation, industrial and residential water systems – have been accompanied by a welter of serious ecological problems. Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, writes Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, begat “waterlogged land, salinity, schistosomiasis, nutrient-starved fields, a dying Mediterranean fishery, and a bill for all of the above that will easily eclipse the value of the irrigation ‘miracle’ wrought by the dam.” Meanwhile silt builds up behind the dams, eventually filling the reservoirs. The length of time a dam takes to fill is its natural lifetime, and it can be very short. China’s Sanmexia Reservoir filled up completely in four years.

For practical purposes, the only other important source of fresh water is aquifers, vast pools of water trapped in the earth’s crust. (It is possible to de-salinize sea water, but the amounts are relatively small and the cost is high.) Aquifers consist largely of “fossil water” which has accumulated over tens of thousands of years, and they, too, are running out. In Mexico City, the depletion of the aquifers has caused the ground to subside by as much as 20 meters. The massive Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under seven U.S. states from Texas to South Dakota, is the size of a small Great Lake. It has been “overdrafted” for decades to irrigate fields, and in places its level is dropping by a meter annually. Some desert cities – Tucson, for instance – depend almost entirely on aquifers. Tucson’s wells, once 150 meters deep, are now going down 450 meters to tap them.

And in many places where there is plenty of water, it is no longer usable. New York has no inherent problem with water supply; it is built on the islands of a delta, and great rivers pour past it. But who would willingly drink from the Hudson, the Yellow, the Danube, the Ganges?

There is plenty of clean water in Canada, though, isn’t there? If New York needs more, or the US Southwest is running dry, or the Chinese or the Arabs are in desperate need, then surely those nations can just bring water in from Canada. And indeed there has been no shortage of proposals, both grandiose and modest, to do just that.


Water exports make Canadians profoundly uneasy. If we open this tap, can we close it again? How much of our water is “surplus” in the first place? Do we have a moral right to refuse water to the thirsty? Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, are we even legally entitled to refuse?

Water export projects have been around for a long time. Among the most prominent is the GRAND Canal project, which would place a dyke across the mouth of James Bay, capturing north-flowing rivers of Ontario in a vast freshwater lake whose waters would then be pumped back south to the Great Lakes, and thus to the United States. The NAWAPA project (North American Water and Power Alliance) would funnel the Yukon, Peace and Liard Rivers into the Rocky Mountain Trench, creating a 800-km trans-border reservoir. There have been proposals to divert the North Thompson into the Columbia, to divert part of the Mackenzie watershed into Lake Winnipeg and thence to the US, to divert parts of the Great Lakes into the Mississippi, and even to run an undersea pipeline from Alaska to California.

Thus far the exuberant backers of such schemes have been balked by economics. The costs would be horrendous, and who would pay them? For most North Americans, clean and abundant water has always been a right, not a precious commodity with a high price-tag. This is largely an illusion. The true true cost of water is buried in our taxes, and it is often substantial. The US government has long provided subsidized water to Southwestern farms for as little as $10 per acre-foot, for instance, even though the water costs ten times that much to capture and deliver.

Realistic pricing would change the economics very quickly. Urban users in California already pay up to $1000 per acre-foot, compared with British Columbia water rates at around $11 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot is the water required to flood one acre to a depth of one foot – 325,000 gallons, or 1.2 million litres.) Some years ago, B.C. issued licenses to exporters, imposing a royalty of $22 per acre-foot. The exporters’ California clients were prepared to pay US$2200. Desalinated water costs up to US$4000 per acre-foot, and some Arabian and Californian communities already find “de-sal” economical. Far from being free, water in some contexts now costs much more than oil.

Canadian water thus represents a bonanza, and business is eager to exploit it. Ontario recently issued a license for the export of Great Lakes water by supertanker to Asia, but withdrew it after public protests. Meanwhile a Newfoundland entrepreneur named Jerry White is seeking a license to ship water to the Middle East from pristine Gisborne Lake, on the province’s south coast. Polls indicate that most Canadians oppose bulk water exports, and the federal government has repeatedly declared that Canadian water is not for sale. Those declarations, however, have not been supported by firm action – and an outright prohibition may not even be permissible under NAFTA, a point which is about to be tested in court.

The case began in March, 1991, when a California company named Sun Belt Water obtained a contract to provide the water district of Goleta, CA, with 7500 acre-feet annually for seven years, at US$2200 per acre-foot. Sun Belt, in turn, contracted with Snowcap Waters of Fanny Bay, British Columbia, to fill a supertanker every week from coastal outfalls on the BC coast. Natives and environmentalists were shocked by this development, and the B.C. First Nations Council called for an immediate moratorium on water export licenses until there had been a full public debate, settlement of the issues of aboriginal rights and title, a comprehensive environmental examination, and assessment of the implications of water exports under NAFTA.

Snowcap already had an export license, but it only permitted the export of 200 acre-feet annually. It applied for an increase of 15,000 acre-feet. But a competitor, Western Canada Water, had a license to export 42,635 acre-feet, more than enough to satisfy the Goleta contract – and WCW also had cozy relationships with Bill Vander Zalm’s provincial government.

Five days after Sun Belt and Snowcap won the Goleta contract, the provincial government imposed a moratorium on new and expanded licenses until a full study of water export policy had been completed. This deft move appeared to address the environmental and aboriginal issues — but it tidily eliminated Sun Belt and Snowcap from the competition to export BC water. That left the field to Western Canada Water, which in turn eventually went broke and was sold to PowerBurst Corporation of Fresno, CA. The only commercially valuable license to export BC water is thus in the hands of the Americans already.

Meanwhile Sun Belt and Snowcap both sued the province, which settled with the Canadian company, but not the American one. Sun Belt then launched a $300 million action against the federal government under NAFTA, which forbids Canada, the United States or Mexico to treat one another’s companies differently from their own.

Does NAFTA cover water exports? Under both the Tories and the Liberals, the federal government has insisted that it does not. After first claiming that water was specifically exempted from the agreement – it is not – the Tories later maintained that it was omitted because water was deemed not to be an item of commerce. They later amended the NAFTA enabling legislation specifically to exclude water. This is a pretty gesture – but Canadian legislation cannot unilaterally alter an international treaty.

Four years ago, British Columbia brought in what Cathy McGregor, the provincial environment minister, calls “legislation permanently banning bulk removals and diversions of water from our province,” and called on Ottawa to do the same. But the dilemma which the feds now face is this: the moment bulk-water exports begin, however small they may be, water presumably becomes a commercial good and thus subject to NAFTA. On the other hand, if Canada unequivocally banned such exports, that action in itself might define water as a commercial good. After all, if water is not a merchantable commodity, how can you ban its export? It would be like banning the export of clouds.

We will not know the actual effect of NAFTA on bulk water exports until the issue has been tested in the courts and trade tribunals, but there is certainly no reason to be sanguine about the outcome. The federal government claimed that culture was exempt, too, and it was wrong, as the Canadian magazine industry has learned to its sorrow. Nor is NAFTA necessarily the only cause for concern. As political scientist Stephen Clarkson recently pointed out, the whole web of trade agreements in which we are now enmeshed constitutes “a new, external economic constitution, comparable in importance to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” – but a profoundly anti-democratic one governed by tribunals which are “in no way accountable to the Canadian public.” Among the structures currently under challenge not under NAFTA, but at the World Trade Organization, are the dairy industry’s supply-management system, the sale of generic drugs, and the Canada-US Auto Pact.

Earlier this year, Ottawa invited the provinces – which share jurisdiction over water – to join it in a temporary moratorium on exports while it works out a water-management strategy covering all bulk removals of water from lakes and watersheds. Since the strategy would cover all such removals, not merely removals for export, and would focus on the management of water resources rather than on commercial arrangements, it should survive a NAFTA or WTO challenge.

Maybe. But among the obstacles we face in formulating an unassailable international water trade policy is our own heritage of hypocrisy.


Federal officials have repeatedly claimed that environmental and health considerations permit Canada to ban water exports. As then-Trade Minister Michael Wilson declared in 1993, Canada has the “right to restrict or prohibit the export of water products as an environmental measure necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health.” Yet, despite the fact that Canadians think of themselves as innocent nature-worshippers stewarding a pristine wilderness, Canadians use more water per capita, and have diverted more water from one basin to another, than anyone else in the world. The two runners-up are the United States and the former Soviet Union, and we have diverted more rivers than the two of them together. If our own record shows that we consistently abuse the water we control, how can we claim the right to protect it from abuses by others?

Canadians use water with disgraceful profligacy because we believe the conventional wisdom: Canada has plenty of water, and need not worry about conserving it. The Economist, for instance, recently declared that “Canada has 20% of the world’s fresh water,” and that “as much as 60% is wasted.” This is nonsense. The 20% figure appears to be based on the total volume of water stored in Canadian lakes and waterways. But most of that water is not available for use, unless we are willing to drain the lakes.

Almost all the water in the Great Lakes, for instance, is fossil water, accumulated when the melting glaciers filled their basins at the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. Only about 1% of their volume is renewable run-off. Canada’s total share of global run-off is in the vicinity of 6% to 8%, almost half of which flows north, leaving something around 4%, possibly 5%, to supply population centres in the south. This is comparable to the amount which the United States receives – and unlike the US, Canada does not appear to have the vast aquifers on which so much of the US relies. And if global warming continues, we may need far more water in the future than we do now.

If the Americans genuinely needed our water – if people in Nevada had to walk many miles to get drinking water from a polluted communal standpipe, for instance, as many Africans do, or even if Californians were suffering a serious erosion in the quality of their lives – then Canadians might feel a moral obligation to help. But in fact the Americans have plenty of water; they just don’t like the inconvenience of living within their hydrological means.

Worldwide, two-thirds of accessible water goes to irrigate fields; in California, the figure is 80% to 85%, and the Israelis, whose water problems are far more severe than California’s, are appalled at how inefficiently it is used. Worse, much of California’s subsidized water is used not to grow food for the hungry, but cotton for government subsidy. In Marq de Villers’ phrase, California’s water works represent “the planet’s most expensive welfare system.” If as little as 10% of that water were diverted to the cities, the Southwest’s urban water problem would, well, evaporate.

Similarly, the US Northeast has plenty of run-off to supply the population – if the water were properly husbanded. In some urban systems, more water leaks away than is actually delivered to consumers. Most urban water is treated to drinking-water standards and then used to flush toilets, while the rain which falls on the city roars off in storm sewers. In Tokyo, by contrast, rain catchment from roofs provides millions of litres of water which is used for everything except drinking. In twelve years, Boston has managed to reduce its total water demand by 24% by charging realistic prices for water, installing water-saving fixtures, promoting water conservation and repairing leaky pipes.

In every region, North Americans are suffering from a shortage not of water, but of intelligence.


Other parts of the world do have genuine water shortages of water, however. Fundamentally, the earth has a finite amount of water which cycles through the environment like a blessing – as rain, as vapour, as run-off. Ultimately, the only solution to the water problem at the global level is to reduce demand. In the medium term, this means vigorous steps to conserve water; in the longer term, it requires the stabilization or reduction of human population.

For humanitarian reasons, Canadians might well choose to undertake a measured program of relatively modest water exports. But any such program should respond to genuine need. It would be appalling to flood whole ecosystems in British Columbia or to canalize the great rivers of the Prairies simply to maintain swimming pools, golf courses and subsidized farms in the American desert. And any export program must be conservatively implemented to avoid causing more problems than it solves. The Soviet planners, after all, did not intend to destroy the Aral Sea.

Canadians have an obligation to manage our own water wisely, using it not merely to satisfy the market, but to meet the most basic needs of our fellow human beings. The saddest irony is that we may already have signed away our right to make that choice.