Should BC start selling its fresh water?

Plain Rhetoric
By Bill McQuarrie
January 24, 2017 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — With all this post-Trump inauguration talk of NAFTA and America’s return to a 1930’s style of isolationism, I’m wondering if we are missing something.  Something, if you will pardon the pun, that trumps our oil, pipelines, natural gas, forestry and yes, even copper and gold.

It represents undreamed of national wealth yet holds the potential for unimaginable controversy and conflict.  It is an economic resource and we own close to 20% of the world’s supply.  And unlike oil and gas, it is impossible for humans and most of the planet to survive without it.

Recognizing the lucrative business case, the American biotech giant, Monsanto, in polite business-speak, proclaimed, “There are markets in which there are predictable sustainability challenges and therefore opportunities to create business value.” The untapped economic resource and opportunity Monsanto refers to is Canada’s fresh water.

The business case being put forward recognizes that seven per cent of the world’s population does not have access to an adequate supply of water and survival for many is increasingly questionable. According to Christopher Maravilla (The Canadian Bulk Water Moratorium and Its Implications for NAFTA), somewhere between two and five million people a year die due to a lack of water.  And Ismael Serageldin, retired VP of the World Bank predicted back in 1997 that, “the wars of the next century will be over water.”

For some like Monsanto, the shortage and resulting hardships and deaths are simply an indicator of a business opportunity. And with one fifth of the world’s freshwater supply in our hands, of which seven per cent is renewable, it is an opportunity that would need Canadian participation.

The irresistible siren’s call of wealth is real. For example: In 2008 the Montreal Economic Institute determined Quebec could earn $6.5 billion a year exporting just 10 per cent of its freshwater resources. And the Frontier Centre for Public Policy estimated an annual income for Manitoba of $1.33 billion if that province were to export just 1% of its fresh water.

Obviously our nation’s fresh water supply is staggering in both volume and value, and this brings us back to NAFTA and President Trump.

The United States has 10 times our population but only one-tenth the amount of water we have.  One example of the consequences of these numbers can be seen in the American Southwest, where satisfying its unquenchable thirst is in jeopardy.

As Scott Gordon wrote in the Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies, “…America has become reliant on unsustainable means to meet its current water demands”.  He explains, “Water is currently being pumped from subterranean aquifers at a rate eight times faster than it is replenished”.

The prosperity of the American Southwest and California appears to have been built on a false assumption of a continued and affordable supply of domestic fresh water.  As a result of management practices, demand and drought, the water supply is nearing a critical stage and Canada and British Columbia in particular, are looking more and more like their saviour and a way out of this water shortage.

Do we want to sell our water?  If we don’t sell it, will it be taken from us through NAFTA or other means? Do we have any idea of the environmental impacts that would result from diverting water from our rivers?

The value of our fresh water can be measured in many ways and economic opportunity is not the only way. The late Joseph Sax, a professor at the Berkeley School of Law and an expert on environmental law once suggested that “water is more than just a common natural resource,” explaining it had a special and unique status, a “heritage resource” that could not be grouped in the same product category as oil, gas and forestry.

It’s a unique way of looking at our fresh water yet trade experts have identified Chapters 3 and 11 of our current NAFTA treaty as, “potentially constraining Canada’s discretion over its water policy."

It is Canada’s water, but in this current political climate and NAFTA uncertainty, do we commodify it and bargain it away in return for national security and economic prosperity?  Some legal experts fear that we have already done so and lost our ability to, “exert sovereign control over our water resources.”