Maude Barlow: Without a national water policy, our water could go to the highest bidders

Until recently, it was commonly stated that Canada holds 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, implying that we have more than we need and should “share” (read “sell”) some of it to thirsty neighbours.

Thankfully, this myth has been largely busted. Canada has in fact about 6.5 per cent of the world’s renewable water – that is, water that we can use without drawing down our core supply – and much of that water flows north, out of reach of the 90 per cent of Canadians who live along the Canada-US border. Surface water supplies are fully spoken for, leaving Canadians dependent on groundwater.

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and the author of the recent book, Blue Future, Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever.

Great Lakes water levels are in decline and the steady growth in commodity exports has left swaths of the Prairies with a water crisis. Canada is now a net virtual water exporter, meaning we send out more water than we import in food and other products every year. Combine these facts with the threat of melting glaciers and our cavalier dumping of industrial and sewage waste, and the picture of Canada as a water-rich country melts away.

Nevertheless, we are better off than many other parts of the world, which means that we need to take better care of our water. We have a terribly dated National Water Act, have done little in the way of mapping our groundwater supplies, have no national drinking water standards, and have a water crisis in our Aboriginal communities.

The Harper government has gutted every protection we ever created for our freshwater heritage. And the investor state provisions of trade deals such as NAFTA and CETA, the Canada-EU trade deal, allow foreign corporations to challenge environmental rules meant to protect water and even claim ownership of the water they use in their operations. (The Harper government gave pulp and paper giant Abitibi Bowater $130 million for the “water rights” the company claimed under NAFTA when it abandoned its Newfoundland operations in 2008, leaving workers without jobs or pensions.)

Our country is in urgent need of a national water policy that must be negotiated among different levels of government and based on a new water ethic that puts protection of our freshwater at the centre of all policy and practice.

Canada must act now if we are to carve out a set or rules governing our water. Our country is in urgent need of a national water policy that must be negotiated among different levels of government and based on a new water ethic that puts protection of our freshwater at the centre of all policy and practice. How would our trade policy be different if it were to have to consider the impact of increased exports on waterways, both here in Canada and around the world? Would we still subsidize biofuel production if we really understood how much water it guzzles? Could we/would we continue to expand the tar sands of Alberta if we had to take into account their devastating impact on water?

In my new book Blue Future, I argue that this new water ethic must be based on four principles.

The first is that water is a human right. In 2010, the United Nations fully recognized that water and sanitation are human rights equal to all other recognized rights. In Canada, this means that we must tackle the grave conditions of water and sanitation in First Nations communities. It also means that we have to be vigilant as water rates rise and poverty grows, that we don’t have Detroit-like cut offs in this country.

The second is that water is a public trust. Water is a common heritage of humanity and of future generations and must be preserved as a public trust in law and in practice. Canada’s water cannot be bought, sold or traded as a commodity on the open market and water must remain an essential public service. The Harper government’s promotion of public-private partnerships for municipalities must end and provinces like Alberta that are contemplating water trading should back off.

The third is the need to recognize that water has rights outside its service to humans. Water is the essential element of all life – not just our own. The belief in unlimited growth and our treatment of water as a tool for industrial growth has put the world’s water in grave danger. We must stop seeing water as a resource for our pleasure and profit and protect and restore watersheds if the planet and we are to survive. In Canada, this means an end to using water to promote extractive industries and the re-instatement of the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canada Environmental Assessment Act.

Finally, I argue that water can teach us how to live together, recognizing that what can appear to be a source of conflict can also serve as a vehicle for peace and healing in the shared search for solutions. Canada needs to return to its historic role as an advocate for justice and peace on the international scene and establish at home wise and fair ways to use and share our limited water supplies. Conflicts are growing over water in Canada, largely over the unrestricted access to water that is given to the oil, mining and fracking industries. These conflicts will continue to grow until firm rules are put in place to protect water watersheds and the people and communities who depend on them for life and livelihood.

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