Sold down the river, Despite claims to the contrary, water is on the table in trade negotiations — we need to be clear with our neighbours that we intend to keep this precious resource

Sold down the river, Despite claims to the contrary, water is on the table in trade negotiations — we need to be clear with our neighbours that we intend to keep this precious resource by Andrew Nikiforuk, Adèle Hurley and Ralph Pentland, September 10, 2007, Ottawa Citizen
Are Canadians ready for the next big trade issue — a concerted effort by the United States to acquire Canada’s fresh water, and a willingness by some influential Canadians to sell it? They should be. It will come as a surprise to many Canadians, but water is on the table. The various treaties and international agreements that govern Canada-U.S. water somehow all manage to skirt the issue of whether it can be exported across the border. While there are many well-publicized statements and written documents indicating that Canada’s water is not for sale, experts believe these have little or no legal force. Both the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free-Trade Agreement and the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, which includes Mexico) were supposed to settle the water question. It didn’t happen. As an afterthought, the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. governments issued a joint statement in 1993 saying NAFTA creates “no rights to the natural water resources” of any trading partner. To this day, the statement remains unsigned.

Settling the ambiguity of water as a tradable cross-border commodity is more important than ever. The fate of our water resources is now dependent on shadowy discussions taking place under the aegis of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), the all-purpose negotiating forum set up by the three NAFTA leaders in 2005. Just last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón met in Montebello, Quebec, to discuss how to advance the SPP’s goals of further continent-wide economic integration. Mr. Harper played down the significance of the Montebello discussions, and Canadian officials took pains to insist that Canadian water transfers were not a negotiating item at this meeting. “Not yet,” they might have added: the SPP, never subjected to legislative debate or approval, provides an ideal framework for negotiating away the rights to Canada’s water.

For more than six years a variety of academic papers, think tanks, consultants and government reports have strongly advocated putting water up for sale. These studies come from a variety of sources: an Industry Canada discussion paper, the federal government’s Policy Research Initiative, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, several high-powered think tanks, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. group that arranged a closed-door meeting in Calgary just last spring that included discussion of water exports.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a director of the CSIS project, said: “It’s no secret the U.S. is going to need water. … It’s no secret that Canada is going to have an overabundance of water. At the end of the day there may have to be arrangements.”

But should there be? While some continental integrationists argue that water should be a resource for sale just like lumber, minerals or energy, scientists suggest this could lead to Canada’s greatest environmental catastrophe. As far back as the 1950s, Gen. A.G.L. McNaughton, who co-chaired the International Joint Commission, noted: “It is nonsense to talk about a surplus and it’s dangerous folly to even contemplate selling water.” Other environmental experts note that Canada has already mismanaged its water supply — many of our waterways are grossly polluted, there is still no national water policy and, just as our fishery officials miscalculated our fisheries’ health, our water officials have no comprehensive national inventory of Canada’s water supplies.

In 2005, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed pleaded that, “We should not export our freshwater — we need it and we should conserve it. And we should communicate to the United States very quickly how firm we are about it.”

Doing so quickly and firmly need not be confrontational, but it does require clear signals and steps:

– The SPP process, and its implications for water resources, should be open to full public scrutiny and full democratic debate.

– We should know how continental integration moves already under way, such as the Alberta oil sands development, will affect our water. The full impact of the continental integration of oil, gas and electricity on the nation’s water resources needs to be immediately assessed by the federal government and publicly reported annually.

The federal government should make it clear to our NAFTA partners — formally informing the U.S. and Mexico that bulk water removals from Canada’s major drainage basins will not be permitted and that the topic of water exports will be excluded from all future SPP or related discussions.

– Finally, the federal government should make it clear to Canadians, too.

With varying vigour, most provinces have banned water exports, but this is a national issue. We need federal legislation preventing the bulk removal of water from Canada’s drainage basins in the event that any province is either unable or unwilling to do so. Until these steps are taken, water will remain on the table. We need national leadership to take it off. [Emphasis added]

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