Many Canadians worry about exporting their fresh water to the United States, just like oil and natural gas.
But according to Maude Barlow, it’s already happening.
Canada indirectly exports large volumes of water through the agricultural commodities it sells to the U.S., Barlow told the recent Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual conference.
According to Environment Canada, the amount of water in Western Canada used to grow grain and livestock exported to the U.S. is twice the annual discharge of the Athabasca River, said Barlow, Council of Canadians national chair.
Looked at in that light, Canada is a huge net water exporter, she said.
This raises an essential question for an exporting nation: does Canada have enough water to sustain those exports?
“There are limits to our resources. We have to live within those limits if we’re going to be sustainable, even economically,” Barlow said after speaking to the MCDA.
“If we want to continue to farm in the future and make money in the future, then we have to care for our water now.”
Besides chairing the Council of Canadians, Barlow also chairs the Washington-based Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit organization.
Barlow painted a grim picture of fresh water availability in Canada and the rest of the world during her hour-long keynote address.
She said the idea that Canada has limitless supplies of fresh water is largely a myth.
A commonly held statistic says Canada has 20 per cent of the world’s fresh surface water. But Barlow said most of that is in northern rivers and therefore inaccessible to the general public. The amount of available water in Canada is more like 6.5 per cent of the world’s total supply. Canadian cities, most located along the southern fringe of the nation, have access to only two per cent, she said.
MORE DIRE ELSEWHERE
The situation is even more dire in other countries, where surface and groundwater supplies are polluted and depleted at an alarming rate, said Barlow.
According to a United Nations study cited by Barlow, 80 per cent of the world’s rivers are in crisis. Seventy-five per cent of the surface water in Russia is polluted. In China, it’s 90 per cent. Whole Chinese cities may eventually have to be relocated because their underground aquifers are being used up. A third of the countries in Africa lack sufficient clean water supplies.
Closer to home, Canada’s own fresh water is under threat, said Barlow. As an example, she cited Lake Winnipeg, one of the world’s 10 largest freshwater lakes, where nutrient loading causes algal blooms to cover much of the north basin at times.
Lake Winnipeg came up frequently at the MCDA conference, which took “In Our Own Backyard” as its theme.
Barlow listed a series of threats to water in Canada, including the possible privatization of municipal water utilities.
Water should be a common good, not bought and sold for profit as part of the overall market economy, she said.
Barlow also called for an overhaul of Canada’s national water act and long-term local plans to determine water use based on availability. [email protected]
– MAUDE BARLOW