A Quebec think-tank, the Montreal Economic Institute, recently released a report encouraging bulk water exports to the United States. The report concludes that Quebec could sip on a cool $65 billion a year by selling just 10% of its "renewable blue gold" to its thirsty and heavily urbanized southern neighbor. However, the report's not just making waves in small economic circles, it's rocking the already-unsteady boat of Canadian public opinion on US export policy.
Since the 1960's, when Canadians learned of plans to privatize and divert large quantities of Canada's water, many in the country have been wary that the US will view Canada as a "great, green sponge" and come after its water resources. They may not be far from the mark. Since he came into office, President Bush began using his dry home state of Texas in talks to push then Prime Minister Jean Chretien to turn on the tap of Canada's water. Past US Ambassador to Canada, Paul Celucci, also made regular attempts to convince Canada that water should be a trade commodity, like oil. Moreover, in a time when much of the American public seems to rely on South Park for information about Canada, there's very little understanding in the US about Canadians' sensitivity over the issue of resource exports (and water exports in particular) to the United States.
In addition, according to the Polaris Institute, the US view of Canada as a country of boundless water is dengerously misleading. Although the World Resources Institute lists Canada as the third most abundant country for renewable water, or water that is replenished annually by rain and snow fall, the PI notes that 60% of Canada's rivers flow away from populated areas into the arctic and therefore cannot be used by either Canadians or Americans.
The MEI report anticipates Canadian's swift backlash and recognizes the sensitivity of the issue. It suggests that redefining water as a trade item will ultimately protect Canada's water resources by encouraging the establishment of "a legal and regulatory framework." It also argues that, in a sense, exporting water to the United States is the ethical thing to do.
"If parts of the world were to suffer from serious water distress, they will have to be supplied with fresh water, which is just as important to life there as it is in regions that are well supplied with water," reasons the MEI report.
The recent flood of controversy over bulk water exports underscores the sensitivity of Canadians over US trade relations and a difference of opinion as to the management of natural resources. What's more, with climate change increasing climate change, urbanization, and food production draining America's water resources at an alarming rate, the debate is likely to only intensify in coming years. Already, according to the PI, America's largest aquifer in the Great Plains is being drained 14 times faster than nature can replenish it. Does Canada have the economic or even moral imperative to assist the United States by supplying water or is the United States facing a critical crossroads in its own domestic water policy?
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