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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Water For Sale

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty reports on the changing nature of water from resource to commodity. Demand for fresh water is on the rise worldwide, and nations with abundant supplies, such as Canada, are weighing whether or not to begin exporting what is becoming a precious commodity.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Every 8 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. That sad statistic is just one indicator of the world's current and growing demand for fresh, clean water. The United Nations predicts that within 25 years, almost a third of the world's population and at least 50 nations will face severe water shortages. Some will even go to war over the resource. This crisis affects thirsty regions of the United States as well. And when Americans talk of buying water in bulk, they often look northward, towards Canada. Canada owns one-fifth of the world's fresh water, but despite the abundant supply and a growing demand, Canadians are trying to prevent their water from being exported. Bob Carty explains.

(Helicopter engine)

WHITE: Now we're down over Grand LaPierre at the moment, and we're flying in a Bell 206 Long Ranger.

CARTY: Jerry White lifts his helicopter up and over a little community on the south shore of Newfoundland. The forests here are virgin, the lakes pristine, especially Gisbourne Lake, an 11-square-mile body of water just in from the ocean. Jerry White banks the helicopter to show where Gisbourne Lake empties into the sea.

WHITE: Now, I'm going to turn around so you can have a look and see the water that's going over the falls, so you can see the clearness and the purity of the water. Very crystal clear, you could just look right on through it. It's a beautiful sight.

CARTY: And Jerry White has plans for that water. Plans to take it to thirsty parts of the Middle East. Plans that Jerry White wants to show off up close. He lands the helicopter.


CARTY: Leads his guest down to the shore. And scoops up a handful of Gisbourne Lake.

(Mild splashes)

WHITE: Very good. Very nice. We have 100 million cubic meters of water a year that flow into the ocean, and we're looking at taking 25%, one tanker of water from the lake. It will drop it one inch. Before the tanker reaches the 200-mile limit, that one inch of water is back in the lake, and it's like nothing has happened here in the area.

CARTY: Jerry White is a millionaire owner of a construction company with a new entrepreneurial vision. He wants to make water the oil business of the 21st century. And the oil metaphor is intentional, except that this time the resource is renewable. And this time, Canada would be the OPEC of water, while the Middle East would be on the buying end. In fact, Jerry White's idea is to use single-hull oil tankers that are no longer environmentally acceptable to transport Newfoundland water to Saudi Arabia, just like any other raw material.

WHITE: You know, we export our fish, we export our minerals, our forestry products. And of course the water should be just another commodity that we export. Under strict guidelines, of course. We don't want to come in and drain every lake and then just send it out.

CARTY: But there's a problem with Jerry White's project. The Canadian government has declared a moratorium on all bulk water exports. It seems Jerry White's scheme has struck a nerve in Canadian politics. Canadians have no compunction about exporting bottled water, nor about selling a river's worth of water treated with a little bit of hops and barley. But bulk water exports? That's another matter. Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a citizen's organization that works on issues of trade, health, and the environment.

BARLOW: Well, it's interesting because we don't take very good care of our water. We're absolutely terrible water abusers, both in our lack of conservation and of course our pollution of our water. Nevertheless, we have great pride in saying it's our water to pollute if we want to. (Laughs) So, I openly and up front admit the hypocrisy. But there is something about water that's part of our history, part of our -- our soul, if you will. Part of what we consider to be essentially Canadian, because we still have so much wilderness. And I think the notion that Americans can waste it, can build in the desert where there isn't any water because heck, they can take us for granted and we've got lots. And it's that being taken for granted, I think, that really rubs Canadians the wrong way.

CARTY: Canadians started feeling rubbed the wrong way in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

MOSS: Canada might well look to using its water as an additional resource.

CARTY: North Dakota Senator Frank Edward Moss was one of a number of American politicians who realized that in the long run, the people and industries of the US Southwest would need more water. Senator Moss's solution was a breathtaking scheme called NAWAPA: the North American Water and Power Alliance. It was the largest engineering project ever conceived, a plan to dam virtually every major river in Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia, and divert the water into the Rocky Mountain trench, creating a reservoir 500 miles long.

MOSS: The great and beautiful Canadian Rockies already offer a tremendous, beautiful retreat for recreation, but to this would be added a great mountain lake. This would flow on down all through the western United States and on into old Mexico.

CARTY: Billions of gallons of water surging southward to make deserts bloom and industry thrive. But some Canadians didn't quite like the idea of drowning a large part of one province and siphoning away rivers they thought were theirs. Water diversion schemes awakened Canadian nationalism.

MAN 1: Clearly we have here an exercise in sophomore civil engineering.

MAN 2: Well, this type of proposal, to my mind, is purely asinine.

CARTY: And so the NAWAPA scheme faded away, in part because of its exorbitant cost and massive environmental impacts. But it also stalled because Canada and the United States lacked a formal trade agreement to give water trade long-term stability. All of that changed in the late 1980s. Washington and Ottawa negotiated the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. And in Canada's Parliament, nationalist sensibilities were again aroused.

MAN 3: This is the Sale of Canada Act.

MAN 4: Right on.

MAN 3: Is it any wonder that the President of the United States called this the fulfillment of the American Dream?

WOMAN 1: Right on.

MAN 3: We have become a storehouse, a reservoir for the United States.

(Many people shout at once)

MAN 5: Quiet, please.

CARTY: Despite widespread opposition, the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement was approved, leaving some Canadians with musical questions about what the free trade deal would mean.

WOMAN 2: (Sings to background music) When the deal goes through, will our pace get quick? Will our beer get thin? Will our skins get thick? When the deal goes through, will our streets get hotter? Can we sell our blood? Will we sell our water? Will Uncle Sam say voulez-vous when the deal goes through?

CARTY: When the Canada-US Free Trade deal did go through, it transformed the playing field for water exports. Maude Barlow.

BARLOW: Essentially, what it did was, if you turn on the tap for water for commercial purposes in any state or province of the countries involved, then it can't be turned off again. You have to continue to supply to the area you've been supplying it to, and governments can enforce that. But more important, you give corporations of the other countries the right to come in. You can't keep it in your own backyard.

CARTY: Since the implementation of North American Free Trade, there has been a flood of new water export proposals. Besides Jerry White's plans for Gisbourne Lake in Newfoundland, there have been about 20 proposals for exporting water from glacier lakes in British Columbia. Another firm wanted to ship water from the Great Lakes to Asia, a scheme that provoked so much protest from Canadian provinces and the Great Lakes states that the International Joint Commission launched public hearings into the matter. The accelerated interest in Canadian water is why Ottawa announced a moratorium. Ottawa's not shutting the door on water exports, it just wants to go slowly. Alaska, meanwhile, is on the fast track. Aware of its declining oil reserves, Alaska is promoting the bulk water export business. There are reports that any day now, a shipment of Alaska H2O will be tankered to Los Angeles. When that happens, Canadian water companies get a right to a share of Alaska water under the trade treaties. In fact, the next company in line is a Canadian group. It wants to sell Alaska water to China, where it will be bottled by cheap labor for resale as international boutique water. There are analysts with doubts about the business of water exports. Sandra Postel is the author of The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. She maintains that so far, bulk water exports are just not profitable.

POSTEL: The economics really depend on the cost of these transfers relative to, in most cases, desalination of water, which is a very expensive option, usually an option of last resort. So any proposal to trade water typically would have to be competitive with that cost. Now, that may change. At the same time, the cost of desalination is coming down at the same time.

CARTY: There are technologies that could cut the cost of bulk water exports. One is bag or bladder technology. You put fresh water into an enormous plastic bag. And because fresh water floats on salt water, you can drag it through the ocean. The bag of water is its own vessel, absorbing all the shocks of waves and storms. If it leaks, there's no environmental damage. But critics say the extraction of water for export could be environmentally devastating. Maude Barlow is the author of a new study called Blue Gold. She argues that although Canada does have a lot of water, much of it is locked up in ice, and much of the rest flows northward to the Arctic. Use of that water would require massive damming projects with extensive environmental impacts. And Maude Barlow bristles when she hears promoters suggest that fresh water running out to sea is wasted.

BARLOW: Recent studies in British Columbia show that fresh water, particularly the glacier water coming off the side of a cliff, where it meets the sea water is a very important spawning ground for salmon and other fish. And that taking that fresh water and, you know, drinking it up, putting it in a big tanker and taking it away would destroy the spawning system for that fish. So I think we need to understand what we don't know yet.

CARTY: As Director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, Sandra Postel agrees. The supply of fresh H2O is limited; population is increasing. Something, she says, has got to give. For Postel, the answer is not moving water to thirsty nations and regions. The most effective measure is working on the demand side of the equation, on water conservation.

POSTEL: If you save a gallon of water, you in effect create a gallon of new supply. And it's a supply that's just as good as if you tankered it in. The cost of these demand-management options, whether it's drip irrigation in agriculture, putting more efficient fixtures in our homes, more efficient toilets, faucets, shower heads, recycling water within industries, these options increase the efficiency of water use, and they do it at a much lower cost, typically, than trading water through tankers and large bags.

CARTY: But solutions like that take time, and political attention. And so far, there has been a noticeable drought in international debate about water, and whether it is just a commodity like any other. Maude Barlow says water has been taken for granted for too long.

BARLOW: The commodification, commercialization, privatization of water is happening now. Governments are standing like animals in the headlights of a car. They have just discovered the water crisis. They haven't the faintest idea what to do.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: In downtown Ottawa, the Rideau River empties off a cliff into the Ottawa River. The capital of Canada was established here because it was far enough away from the threat of Americans across the St. Lawrence River. It seems water, and issues of Canadian sovereignty, are doomed to be married together for some time yet to come. As an American, Sandra Postel sympathizes with the Canadian conundrum over water. And she welcomes Canada's moratorium on bulk water exports.

POSTEL: Canada is one of the most abundant water countries in the world. But the idea of going carefully, I think, is justified, because water is more than a commodity. Water is fundamentally the basis of life. Access to a minimum amount of clean water for drinking, cleaning, basic household needs, is a human right.

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Ottawa.



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