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Selling Canada's Water

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Watershed: Reflections on Water contains a series of essays on water, as MacEwan draws from his broad knowledge as an agriculturalist and his cast life experience to tell us "what every Canadian should know about water". Watershed
Reflections on Water
Copyright 2000 NeWest Press
193 pages,
ISBN 1-896300-35-9.

The word, "conservation," with its present connotation, was unknown until the early part of 1907. It occurred to me one day that forestry, irrigation, soil protection, flood control, water power and a lot of other matters were up to that time kept in separate watertight compartments, all parts of one problem. The problem was and is the use of the whole earth and all of the resources for the enduring good of mankind.
-Gifford Pinchet, 1955

Water shortages, as causes of suffering and premature death, should stand along-side the more highly publicized food famines in terms of catastrophic magnitude. The highly regarded Christian Science Monitor recently informed its readers that "almost one out of every three people in the developing parts of Africa and Asia, does not have access to safe and reliable supplies of drinking water for family needs." More fortunate citizens in other parts of the world will say they have heard all of that before, but they should not and dare not close their eyes to a sorrowful dilemma that makes world water problems a serious threat to humanity in every region of the world.

North Americans following the daily news could easily be misled into thinking that resources like oil, natural gas, silver and gold are today's most precious treasures. As important as these may be, they must not be rated above water, soil, trees, and air. These foundations of life should be cherished and deserve to be safeguarded diligently against waste and greedy exploitation.

It is not difficult to hold the attention of an audience with talk of conservation when local water supplies are in decline. What is to be said for a situation in which one party has a far larger number of people and consequently the greater need for new sources of water, while another party has water resources in abundance but an unwillingness to trade?

The story of Canadian and American negotiations over water is a long one that began with the 1783 Treaty of Paris after the War of Independence. The international boundary between New Brunswick and Maine was to begin at the mouth of the St. Croix River. Among the many points of dispute that arose was the fact that there were three St. Croix Rivers on that side of the continent. It took the Ashburton-Webster Boundary Commission of 1842 to determine which one was intended to become the boundary marker.

Canadians have shown interest at various times in export sales of their water, anticipating the large sums of money that would come with such a sale. But they haven't forgotten the occasion when the Americans were too sharp for their neighbours and left a hideously crooked international border between New Brunswick and the State of Maine as an unforgettable reminder. That was not the only geographical remnant of extremely hard bargaining on the part of the United States. There was the equally memorable Alaskan boundary dispute that dragged on and on and ultimately deprived Canadians of a vast stretch of Pacific coastline-what came to be infamously known as the "Alaska Panhandle."

It wasn't surprising then that when the two ageing neighbours began negotiating a massive Free Trade deal in the late 1980s, the Canadian negotiators braced themselves to protect the wealth of water scattered across the north of the country. "It has become very largely a mix of pride and sentiment and prejudice," said one of the Canadian negotiators, "and both sides will be at their stubborn best when water is 'on the table,' you can be sure."

One of the stubborn spirits who followed the Free Trade negotiations with patience complained of the deep rift that ran through the ranks of the conservationists. Many of them were ready to deal away our non-renewable oil and natural gas resources with what sometimes seemed like "indecent haste." At the same time, the majority stood with relative firmness against the principle of selling fresh water for export, even though it is the most easily renewable of all resources.

The issue boils down to this: Canada has a relatively small population and vast unused quantities of high-grade water while the United States, with its much larger population, is desperately in need of it. A substantial number of Canadians are quietly opposed to an export sale; some even admit that they would prefer to see their good Canadian water lost in the salty brine of the Arctic. People are entitled to their opinions, but no effort should be spared in preventing important water decisions from falling to those in public life who are clearly motivated by personal and political gains.

The fact that nine percent of the world's renewable fresh water is in Canada's backyard should elicit enthusiastic gratitude from Canadians everywhere and generate a charitable feeling for water-needy people wherever they may be. Western Canada, even though it is well-acquainted with drought, can still fill its international neighbours with envy. The people of Alberta, after giving thanks for the rich gifts of oil, natural gas, soil and coal, should not forget their incredible legacy of water, even though its distribution around the province has been less than ideal. Most of the irrigation in Canada is in Alberta. Although it is not considered an extensive industry, it is important. It seems likely that greater agricultural productivity will develop as water that flows through southern Alberta today is further diverted to irrigation.

If irrigation or other uses are not found for Canada's surplus water, the case for export sale will be greatly strengthened. There is nothing to be said for letting the Mackenzie and Nelson water drain fruitlessly into the Arctic Ocean. Yet recent opinion polls show that about fifty-seven percent of respondents are in favour of strictly controlled water sales, and that only seven percent support export sales without predetermined controls.

A wider distribution of Canadian water could help ease the suffering due to water scarcity felt by young and old, needy and poverty-stricken, humans and animals in an increasing number of countries. It will not become any easier to negotiate with them in the future. The ones with urgent needs will become more and more adamant. Canadians have seen in the past that when water becomes attractive for export it acquires instant political sensitivity.

Canadians can expect to participate in important plebiscites on water in the years ahead. Even without possessing the qualifications of trained hydro-engineers, ordinary citizens should accept their responsibilities with diligence and review the growing history of water fortunes and misfortunes in our nation. The water in any future trade deal belongs to the voters and their children, and deserves the most thorough possible consideration.

Anyone who is searching for biblical instruction in the matter of exporting fresh water from the Canadian North should look to the writings of St. Paul to the Romans: "If thine enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink ... " (Romans 12:20). It is safe to say that St. Paul was not thinking about water exports; what he was thinking about, undoubtedly, was old-fashioned charity, which should never go out of date. Charity should be enshrined in human memory along with the unfading lustre of water itself, a natural phenomenon that never rests, never gives up, never wears out, never surrenders to the forces of destruction and never fails to bring restoration to God's beautiful and much buffeted world.

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