Water: Canada’s Most Valuable Resource

Should we invade Canada with armed forces? Sure, they’re nice people, and ever so peaceable. (It’s going to be hard to work up much xenophobic hatred toward a country that thinks “jeepers” is an expletive, and that has “Be Polite” in its constitution.) But Canadians have something we need, and I don’t mean hockey players. “Blue gold,” it’s been dubbed by a Canadian newspaper, but it’s far more valuable than that implies, because the world can do without gold.

Water. That’s what Canada has that parts of our country and much of the world might literally kill for.

Hell, you say, water’s everywhere. Yes, but as Canada’s Maude Barlow points out, less than half of 1 percent of all the water on the globe is drinkable. An author and agitator for common sense, Barlow heads the Council of Canadians and is founding chair of Action Canada Network, two grassroots groups working for progressive policies. “Worldwide, the consumption of water is doubling every 20 years,” she writes in a stunning report called “Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis.” In a very short while, most of the world’s people will face shortages or absolute scarcity. This is not a matter of seeing more stories of wretched African children dying in horrible droughts, but of imminent water crises in America (the Southwest, Florida, and California especially), Southern Europe, India, England, China, and other nations not usually thought of as facing massive water shortages.

Canada, on the other hand, has a blessing of agua fresca. Some 20 percent of the world’s entire supply of freshwater is in its winding rivers and countless lakes. This reality has not dawned on Canadians alone; others are casting their eyes northward. But it’s not countries making invasion plans–it’s corporations.

To get their hands on the gold, the corporate grubbers first have to change how drinking water is managed. Instead of letting countries treat it as a commonly held resource allocated for the general good, they want it considered as a commodity traded by private investors for profit. Like oil or pork bellies . . . only this is your drinking water they want to privatize. Will it surprise you to learn that those bratty globalization twins, NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, contain provisions that advance the commodity concept? Both baldly assert that “water, including ordinary natural water of all kinds,” is merely one form of “goods,” subject to the new rules of global trade.

We’re talking about bulk sales here: not Evian, but whole lakes and aquifers bought and mined, rivers siphoned off, the Great Lakes themselves on the market. Barlow and others report that multinationals are ready to use supertankers, pipelines, canals, river rerouting, and other mammoth schemes to shift the product from the water-rich to those willing to pay top dollar:

  • Nordic Water Company totes H2O from Norway to thirsty Europe across the sea in giant, floating plastic bags.
  • Global Water Corporation, a Canadian firm, has cut a deal with Sitka, Alaska, to haul 18 billion gallons of water per year from nearby Blue Lake to China–“Water has moved from being an endless commodity that may be taken for granted to a rationed necessity that may be taken by force,” says GWC’s chilling statement.
  • The Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal involves building a dike across James Bay to capture water from 20 rivers that feed it, converting the bay into a giant reservoir, then building a network of canals, dams, and locks to move the water 400 miles south to Georgian Bay, where it would be “flushed through” the Great Lakes into pipelines that would take it to America’s Sun Belt for lawn watering, golf course sprinkling, and other essentials.
  • The McCurdy Group of Newfoundland hopes to “harvest” some 13 billion gallons of water a year from one of that province’s lakes, pipe it to the coast, pump it into old oil tankers, and ship it to the Middle East for a hefty profit.
  • One Monsanto executive, seeing a multibillion-dollar business opportunity, says bluntly: “Since water is as central to food production as seed is, and without water life is not possible, Monsanto is now trying to establish its control over water. . . . Monsanto [has launched] a new water business, starting with India and Mexico, since both these countries face water shortages.”

“Canada,” barked editor Terence Corcoran of the Financial Post in a 1999 editorial, “is a future OPEC of water”; he urged that the country begin trading this commodity. But thanks to citizen groups like Maude Barlow’s, the Great Canadian Water Sale-a-Thon has yet to begin; their vigilance has produced a temporary moratorium on bulk sales. This might be a good place to add that Maude, and Canadians generally, are not saying, “It’s our water and the rest of the world can go suck eggs.” To the contrary, they are pushing for a public policy of sharing their bounty to meet the global water crisis, allocating water particularly to help those in need.

But the pressure is intense to simply let “the market” decide who needs it. And the big stick of “free trade” is being wielded to turn the water loose. Sun Belt Water Inc., based in Santa Barbara, California, has filed the first NAFTA water case. It had an agreement with a British Columbia company to ship water in tankers from B.C. to Southern California. But such an outcry ensued when the scheme became public that the provincial government enacted a moratorium on all water exports. The corporation sued Canada in 1998, claiming that its future profits were “expropriated” by British Columbia’s export moratorium and that, under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, the nice people of Canada owed it $468 million.

Money isn’t enough, though. Sun Belt CEO Jack Lindsey is also outraged at what he perceives as Canadian stinginess: “California has 33 million people–more than the entire population of Canada. This is expected to double in the next 20 years, and they have been living in a permanent drought condition. In 20 years, the shortfall in California will be 4 million acre-feet of water [per year]–1 percent of what spills into the Pacific Ocean from British Columbia–and they’re saying ‘Sorry, you can’t have it?'” Such a humanitarian. Jack just wants a few drops for California’s poor parched people.

What a crock. Bulk water deals have nothing to do with global need and everything to do with global greed. Privateers will deliver the water to whoever will pay the most–like Silicon Valley’s water-gobbling high-tech companies and agribusiness corporations that suck up aquifers like insatiable sponges. Then there is Lindsay’s snide comment about water that just “spills into the Pacific Ocean,” a common refrain, as if water that isn’t being used commercially is being “wasted.” Never mind that water running to the sea is essential to the ecological cycle, delivering nutrients, sustaining fishing economies, replenishing wetlands, and doing much more useful chores than fattening the wallets of would-be water barons.

Jim Hightower is a best-selling author, radio commentator, public speaker, and all-around political sparkplug. From If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates (HarperCollins, 2000).

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