A Wet Idea

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to sell.

That paraphrase accurately describes the hard-line reaction of both Canadian officials and the public to the idea that we could make money exporting fresh water to a thirsty world. When the Globe and Mail published a sensible editorial last year which asked, “What’s the problem?” a ferociously negative response swamped the newspaper.

The issue is heating up again, and professional patriots like Maude Barlow are lining up their troops. The CBC News is sounding the alarm. A report on water exports is due from the International Joint Commission, charged with regulating the Great Lakes. Expect a lot of noise no matter what it concludes.

We gladly ship non-renewable resources like natural gas, petroleum and coal to international markets. The same willingness applies in the case of lumber, even though it takes about a hundred years to grow a tree to marketable size. Why does fresh water, by contrast an infinitely renewable commodity, become an object of almost religious devotion?

The fuss started in the spring of 1998 when a small company in Sault Ste. Marie received permission from Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment to pump 600 million litres a year out of Lake Superior and send it by tankers to Asia. That represents 90 minutes worth of the annual flow through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Water bottlers in Ontario already draw 18 billion litres a year out of aquifers across the province and sell it to all comers. The Ministry, which issues permits for this, insists that the resource is in no danger of exhaustion.

An entrepreneur in Newfoundland uses tugboats to land icebergs on a beach, where crushing machines spew it a barge that melts and purifies the ice. His company, Iceberg Industries, can’t fill all the demand. Newfoundland’s government has issued a permit to another company to export 52 billion litres of water a year from Gisborne Lake, a small, pristine lake close to a harbour. Officials in Ottawa, which has authority over exports, have threatened to prohibit the plan.

British Columbia’s potential for water commerce, beyond its current bottling industry, is almost limitless. Thirty-three feet of rain a year fall into Link Lake on the ocean coast, and most of that just spills into the Pacific. The surplus from this one small lake would be enough to meet California’s water needs for the next 20 years. The state’s current shortfall represents only .005 percent of the amount of rainwater in B.C. that now falls into the sea. B.C. legislation permits such trade and provides a mechanism to ensure that only surplus water is used for export. Unfortunately it also forbids exports in containers larger than 20 litres.

Alberta’s Water Act set up a market-based system whereby ranchers and farmers who have surplus water can sell it to others. But it didn’t go far enough. It allows these transfers only to occur within districts, and prevents province-wide trading in water rights. So the dry parts of the province can’t access it. This restriction, which makes no sense at all, was imposed to allay the irrational fears of landowners in water-rich areas.

It would be a pity if such fears prevented Canada from exploiting our water resources. Depending on the measurement used, Canada is floating on up to two-thirds of the world’s supply of fresh water. About 79,000 cubic metres of the stuff flows into the ocean every second. A recent study suggests a third of the world’s population is set to experience severe water shortages by the year 2025. Seems like a formula for making a lot of money.

We don’t need to divert any rivers or run ourselves short to take advantage of our position. Nor does it mean we would be forever obliged to supply water once we start down that path, as the anti-trade lobby claims. Environmental protection clauses in NAFTA allow the federal government to stop any trade it deems harmful.

A sensible arrangement for water sales would see the government set a limit on annual exports, and then auction off the rights to commercial bidders. Maybe we’d pay off the national debt in no time flat.