Exporting water may be impractical, but it's an issue we may soon have to consider

·Politics Reporter

The debate over bulk water exports is often dismissed as one that’s purely theoretical.

There are many academics that suggest the idea of Canada exporting large amounts of fresh water by shipment – via tankers and pipeline or by riverbed diversions is simply uneconomical and, at this point, unnecessary.

But, with droughts in the United States and water shortages elsewhere, it’s a debate that isn’t going away.

Technically, Canada has legislation in place that prohibits the practice.

Andy Radia is a politics contributor for Yahoo Canada News.

In 2012, the Stephen Harper government introduced Bill C-383, which bans bulk water removals from rivers and streams under federal jurisdiction that cross or feed into international borders.

Critics of the government, however, argue that the legislation is incomplete and doesn’t cover watersheds under provincial jurisdiction.

“The problem is with the government’s bill, as far as I’m concerned there’s still a risk that you can export water via a pipeline,” says Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, pointing out that he believes pipelines are a grey area.

“The other problem with the government’s bill is … because you’re only dealing with trans-boundary rivers, it doesn’t prevent you from exporting water by ship from the West Coast, from the East Coast or from … Lake Gisborne in Newfoundland.”

Scarpaleggia also worries that the legislation tacitly deems water a tradable natural resource, leaving Canada vulnerable to a potential NAFTA challenge.

Canadian businesses have tried, unsuccessfully, to export water before.  

In the 1980s, British Columbia’s government issued licenses to six companies allowing them export small volumes of freshwater from that province’s coastal streams. A company called Snowcap partnered with an American firm to send water to a California town struggling with a prolonged drought. Before the deal could be consummated, however, it became the subject of massive public outcry, forcing the government to place a moratorium on the export program.

Similarly in 1998, Ontario granted a permit to a company wanting to remove 10 million litres of water a day for up to 60 days a year from Lake Superior to ship to Asia. Before any contracts were signed, both the United States and Canadian governments intervened, raising concerns about the long-term effects on the Great Lakes ecosystem. Subsequently the permit was revoked.

While those two examples suggest that the Canadian population isn’t keen on exporting water, not everyone is opposed.

In 2010, the Fraser Institute released a report asking this question: If we’re OK, as a society, to export other natural resources, such as iron-ore, lumber and oil, why are we so against trading water for profit?

“Worldwide demand for potable water is significant; an estimated one billion people lack access to safe drinking water,” notes the report, written by Diane Katz.

“Water export can be environmentally sustainable. The level of allowable exports can be based on a proportion of renewable flow (as opposed to absolute volume), or a proportion of water con served, to adjust for variations in water levels and to ensure the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, and recreational uses.”

The report writer acknowledges that at this point in time, the economics of bulk water exports don’t make sense, but suggests that repealing the existing bans would attract enough research and development investment to make the industry profitable.

An expert on water resources, however, suggests that Canada’s aversion to exporting water isn’t going to change. Dr. Rob de Loë, the University Research Chair in Water Policy and Governance at the University of Waterloo, says that Canadians have a very emotional and environmental connection to water.  

“The thing about water ... is if you take all of the water out of the river, you’ve basically wiped out an ecosystem. So water is different from a lot of these other natural resources we have,” he said.

“Water causes people’s blood to boil as you don’t see [with] other natural resources. Concern for water is only getting higher.”

But the water debate may intensify moving forward, with increased international demand for fresh water reserves.

In 2012, a U.S. State Department intelligence report claimed that between now and 2040 in North Africa, the Middle East and in South Asia, “fresh water availability will not keep up with demand” and that “water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.”

In the future, will Canadians avoid the urge to trade our fresh water if it becomes a humanitarian issue? Will we be under pressure – via trade deals – to export or divert large amounts of water to the United States or elsewhere?

Perhaps it’s something that should be debated sooner than later.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters, graphics courtesy Stephen Leahy, Your Water Footprint)