Will foreigners drink Canada dry?

Commentary, Water, Frontier Centre

In the film masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, General Jack D. Ripper was obsessed with foreign conspiracies "to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids." He seemed an eerily Canadian sort of figure recently as rare unanimity was apparently reached that water exports represent a mortal threat to all that is fine and good and true about Canada.

Reason, however, and not paranoia is needed in thinking about Canada 's water-export policy. Let's all pour ourselves a tall cool glass of you-know-what, plop ourselves down by our favourite lake, take a few deep breaths and regain our composure.

Water is a renewable natural resource, and a sensible policy would strike a thoughtful balance among its various values: economic, ecological, recreational, esthetic and other. What should that policy be?

The renewable part of the resource is not the water that sits on the territory of Canada, but rather the flow of water through it. By some estimates Canada "exports" about 79,000 cubic metres of water per second as it flows into the sea or across the border. The recent proposal to export Lake Superior water would have taken, each year, a volume equal to about 90 minutes worth of the average annual outflow of the Great Lakes Basin.

The moral indignation that greeted the proposal stands in stark contrast to the stakes. Every barrel of oil and pound of copper pulled from the ground and sold to foreigners is gone forever, yet these are respectable Canadian industries. Our water resources, sensibly managed, are infinitely renewable and might make an important contribution to the national economy, yet export is tantamount to treason.

Opponents have represented the Lake Superior proposal as the first tiny breach in the watertight dike, a breach that, once made, will quickly become a rushing torrent, as thirsty Americans use trade instruments like NAFTA and GATT to plunder our hydrological resources while water -worshipping Canadians stand by, impotent.

This image is wrong, on several counts. Canada already sells its water resources to foreigners, and not just in obvious but trivial forms such as beer, soft drinks and bottled water. Our hydroelectric exports, for example, involve massive disruptions in our " water heritage," including river diversions, dams, interbasin exchanges of water and the numerous other bogymen brandished by export opponents.

As for Canadians' stewardship of their water resources, it is not impressive. We are second in the world only to the United States in our per-capita consumption of water, taking three times more each day than the average German, for example. A third of Canadians are not even served by waste-treatment plants.

With respect to water, Canadians and Americans suffer from the same disease: We say that it is priceless, but act as if it were absurdly cheap. Most North Americans pay far less for their water than even just the cost of supplying it, cleaning it up and returning it to the environment. Yet subsidizing water use is economically and ecologically disastrous.

In fact, heavy subsidization of water use in the U.S. is the cause of any water "shortages" that may exist there. In California, for example, agriculture consumes 80 per cent of the state's water, often growing low-value crops in the desert. If everyone paid the true value of the water they used, they would use less, freeing more for those who need it.

The so-called shortages would then stand revealed as water -misallocation problems that would rapidly disappear. But why would Americans endure that pain if Canadians are willing to treat their water like so many other natural resources, selling it at less than its true value as an artificial prop to growth and employment? If Canada 's water is priced at its full value, U.S. demand will be moderate, because the huge diversion and other projects that so frighten many Canadians would be wildly uneconomic compared with more sensible alternatives such as conservation, economization and desalination.

Proper pricing, however, must be applied within Canada as well as in the export field, for economic, ecological and trade reasons. Thus, the solution to the water -export problem is for Canada to manage its domestic resource more wisely. That, together with federal-provincial co-operation in defining more clearly who owns the country's water and the conditions under which some of it may be exported, will allow us to realize the full value of the resource and invest more in improving its quality while keeping foreign and domestic demand well within the bounds of sustainability. Cheers.