Canada is giving away massive amounts of fresh water in the form of exported grain, meat and food products as well as other commodities, the Council of Canadians says in a report.
It says the agriculture industry accounts for 70 per cent of the water shipped from the country. It calls the moisture content of the exports “virtual water.”
“Because Canada has more abundant water supplies than some other countries, successive provincial and federal governments have built their economies on the myth of abundance and the assumption that these supplies are unlimited,” says council chair Maude Barlow, one of the report’s authors. “Most of our provincial and federal governments depend to this day on exports that may endanger Canada’s freshwater legacy.”
Canada is second only to Australia in virtual water exports, she contends.
Some countries “are depleting their water supplies in order to maintain export markets,” she adds. “Wealthier countries import products with high moisture content “in order to protect their own limited water resources.”
Barlow is urging the Canadian government to study the issue.
Farm groups have heard the charges before. They say the water isn’t lost as it is returned to the environment after the food is consumed, is evaporated and returns to the ground as rain.
As well, the issue is being studied by two organizations, says an agricultural backgrounder. At the request of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the Council of Canadian Academics is preparing “a comprehensive evaluation of what additional science is needed to better guide the sustainable management of water to address the needs of agriculture.” The group had its first meeting in mid-May.
Meanwhile, the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy is in the middle of a study on the future sustainability of Canada’s natural resource sectors; agriculture is one of the sectors under discussion. The steering committee is planning to hold a workshop on “the needs to better plan and manage water resources in agriculture.”
“While Canada is often touted as having 20 per cent of the world’s water supplies, in fact it has 6.5 per cent of the world’s renewable water,” Barlow says. “Many parts of Canada are facing some form of water crisis and nowhere is our groundwater properly mapped.
“Yet the practice of allowing almost unlimited access to our rivers, lakes and aquifers for commodity, energy and mineral production and export continues without public debate or oversight,” she says.
The report blames NAFTA for a marked increase in water-intensive exports to the U.S. and the integration of key parts of the North American agriculture and energy sectors.
“Over 60 per cent of Canada’s total agricultural exports and their embedded water go to the U.S.”
As well Canada loses nearly two billion cubic metres of fresh water in the production of fuel from the Alberta tarsands of Alberta, the report said.