Paper Revives Bulk Water Transport Debate in Canada

A Quebec think tank, the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), released a research paper on Aug. 27 arguing that large-scale exports of fresh water would be a wealth-creating idea for Quebec and for Canada, according to a press release from Ottawa's Polaris Institute.

"Freshwater Exports for the Development of Quebec's Blue Gold" concludes that Quebec could generate $65-billion a year in gross revenue by exporting 10 percent of the one trillion cubic meters of "renewable fresh water" available to it each year. The paper was written by Marcel Boyer, MEI's chief economist and vice president.

Reaction was swift. "Canada's precious fresh water resource belongs to the people and cannot be bundled and privatized at the whim of government and corporate interests," said Joe Cressy, campaign co-coordinator at the institute.

The revenue estimate was based on a price equal to 65 cents a cubic meter that Boyer says is the cost to desalinate seawater. Even a royalty of just 10 percent would generate $6.5-billion a year in income.

Quebec holds 3 percent of the world's reserves of fresh water but uses only 0.5 percent.

"Water is a fundamental human right and any attempt to divert or export it, whether to the U.S. or Saudi Arabia, must defer to what's in the broad Canadian public interest," Cressy said. "In a pre-election cycle, there's great pressure from corporations to allow the export of fresh water. If Quebec went ahead, other provinces would have to follow."

In April 2007 Environment Minister John Baird, responding to media reports of trilateral negotiations between Canada, Mexico, and the United States on bulk water exports and diversions, stated: "The Government of Canada has no intention of entering into negotiations, behind closed doors or otherwise, regarding the issue of bulk water exports. Canada has restrictions in place to prohibit bulk removal of water, including diversion, backed by serious fines and/or imprisonment. Canada is committed to protecting water in its natural state and to preserving the integrity of ecosystems, and will continue to do so."

This long-standing position against bulk water removal is consistent with the 1993 statement of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) countries that, "unless water in any form has entered into commerce and become a good or product, it is not covered by the provisions of any trade agreement including the NAFTA."

But, notes the MEI paper "...the provinces have primary responsibility for managing water on their territory, whereas the federal government has responsibility for boundary waters within the limits set out by the International Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909."

This only confirms that the issue of bulk water exports is far from clear and far from settled.

In April 2008, the Polaris Institute released a report called "Turning on Canada's Tap" that outlined why Canada needs a comprehensive policy and strategy on bulk water exports to the United States. It noted Canada's reputation as a water-rich nation is misleading and bears rethinking in the light of mounting U.S. freshwater demands.

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