OTTAWA, Jul 8 (IPS) - Canada is said to have more unpolluted fresh
water than any other nation, but environmentalists and anti-
globalization activists say the country risks losing its precious
Critics of Canadian environmental and trade policy say Canada is
squandering water by gutting environmental agencies and allowing
large amounts of water to become contaminated. At the same time,
some Canadian provinces are flirting with the idea of bulk exports
of water to the United States and other countries where supplies
are becoming scarce.
There simply is nothing to be gained by ordinary people by putting the most precious commodity in the world into the hands of a few corporations.
Environmentalists and free-trade opponents have seized upon last
year's contamination of the drinking water in the small town of
Walkerton, Ontario as a case study in the perils of privatization,
deregulation, and free trade. The incident left seven people dead
and more than 2,000 with illnesses caused by E-Coli, out of a
total population of 8,000.
E-Coli is a bacterium. It causes haemolytic uremic syndrome, the
symptoms of which include stomach pain, fever and severe diarrhea,
which can lead to bloody diarrhea.
The bacterium seeped into Walkerton's wells from nearby hog farms.
Local officials tried to cover up the contamination but were
forced to go public when sheer numbers of patients overwhelmed the
town's hospitals and clinics Most of the people who died were
residents of seniors' homes.
At the end of June, after months of hearings into the tragedy,
Ontario Premier Mike Harris took responsibility for any role his
government played in the tainted water tragedy while brushing
aside the argument that he and his cabinet ignored the safety
risks of slashing the environment ministry's budget.
His government had cut 48 percent of the financing for the
environment ministry in Canada's largest province after coming to
power in 1995 on a pledge to balance budgets and streamline
government services. It also privatized water-testing labs and
handed management of water treatment to municipalities. In
Walkerton, the manager of the water works confessed that he did
not understand how testing worked, and that he often drank alcohol
on the job.
Harris dismissed a series of cabinet documents and published
reports that detailed the risks and insisted that his government
did not ignore warnings of threats to the environment.
"We weren't given any advice that any of the reductions of the
actual dollar expenditures led to any increase to the risk to
health by any ministry, including the environment," he told a
judicial inquiry called by his own government.
Harris denied his government targeted the environment ministry
because of distaste for regulation, and pointed out that the
tourism ministry's budget was cut by 80 percent between 1995 and
He admitted, however, that the Walkerton deaths were a "wake-up
call" to the province, Canada and the rest of the world.
While environmentalists are using the Walkerton tragedy to draw
attention to the risks of privatizing services and government
budget cuts they say have sapped environmental protection
agencies, anti-globalization activists worry that multinational
corporations will take advantage of Canada's pro-free trade
policies and cash-hungry decentralized governments to get
permission to export water.
Tony Clark, head of the non-governmental Polaris Institute and an
organizer of the Jul 6-8 conference on 'Water for People and
Nature' in the western city of Vancouver, says the wasting and
polluting of drinking water and the pressure for permission to
export water are linked.
Greed, he says, is the common factor.
"Multinational corporations want to make money selling water,
whether it's bottled water for drinking or bulk water for
agribusiness, without regard for the cycle of water in the place
where the water is taken, nor for the pollution issues in the
place where the water is sold," says Clark.
Citizens' groups at this weekend's conference, he adds, are
saying, "We need to rebuild and recover the water in aquifers in
all of our countries. Shipping water is a stop-gap solution that
only enriches multinational corporations while doing irreparable
harm to the countries involved."
Clark says he finds it ironic that Canada's most notorious recent
water poisoning incident, at Walkerton, was caused by seeping
contamination from agribusiness plants, while, at the same time,
Canada is being pressured to export water to countries where
agribusiness waste has destroyed drinking water supplies.
He disagrees with the argument that water should be traded and
priced as a commodity in order to reduce wastage by consumers.
"It's not ordinary people who waste water. It's large industries
and agribusiness. They can afford to buy water from other
corporations, but ordinary people can't," Clark asserts.
"The consensus here is definitely against water exports and
further privatization of water utilities. There simply is nothing
to be gained by ordinary people by putting the most precious
commodity in the world into the hands of a few corporations,"
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