A War Is Brewing Over Water
Living in the Great White North, we spend a good portion of our year looking south with an envious eye to folks in the U.S. south and southwest basking in double digit temperatures while we're scraping ice off our windshields with cold-numbed hands.
But millions of U.S. residents living in places such as California, Nevada, and Arizona could soon be looking this way with a hungry glint in their eye. And it won't be our weather they're coveting.
It will be our water.
Living in Niagara, surrounded on three sides by two Great Lakes and the mighty Niagara River, and with dozens of smaller rivers and tributaries snaking through the peninsula, it would be easy to take water for granted.
Not so in the U.S. southwest and in much of the world, where water is scarce -- and getting scarcer. So much so that experts are predicting courtroom clashes between parched U.S. states, cities and regions fighting for finite amounts of water, and analysts predicting that in the 21st century water will become the new oil.
And like oil, another valuable, finite resource, nations will go to war over water.
The harsh reality is that while our planet may be two-thirds water -- so much water that it's the colour blue from space -- the amount of freshwater world-wide is becoming stressed.
Last October, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said population growth and unsustainable consumption patterns are pointing the world toward a water crisis of epic proportions. He said about 700 million people in 43 nations are affected by water scarcity, but within 17 years those ranks could swell to three billion people.
Experts say global warming could make the situation worse, with rising sea levels contaminating coastal, underground water aquifers, possibly contributing to a prolonged drought in California, and reducing snowcaps in the Colorado River basin, which supplies many parts of the U.S. west with runoff from melting snow.
The Colorado River is already under stress from the worst drought conditions in its recorded history, and the migration of hordes of people from the U.S. Rust Belt to parched places such as Arizona and Nevada will only exacerbate that.
From 1990 to 2000, when the most recent U.S. census took place, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh all saw their populations shrink. By contrast, Phoenix's population exploded by 34 per cent.
The Association of California Water Agencies, which represents nearly all of the state's water agencies, said despite looming, critical shortages of water in some of the fastest growing areas of the U.S., the public is largely ignorant of what's going on.
"We are facing some of the most significant challenges to our water system in a half century, yet the public is largely unaware of it," said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the association.
In 1998, the province of Ontario issued a permit to a private company from Sault Ste. Marie to ship up to 600 million litres of Lake Superior water to Asia by 2002. There was such an outcry on both sides of the border that the permit was withdrawn.
The scare that situation created led to a number of U.S. Great Lakes states and both Ontario and Quebec entering into what's known as the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. Among other things, the agreement signed in 2005 bans new diversions of water from the basin for the most part.
But the question is whether the agreement -- which still has to be approved by two state legislatures and the U.S. Congress -- along with provincial, state and federal regulations banning the diversion of water from the Great Lakes, could be vulnerable to court challenges.
Herb Gray, Canadian chair of the joint Canadian-U.S. International Joint Commission (IJC), which for almost a century has worked to settle water disputes on the Great Lakes and protect the lakes, believes Ontario and Quebec legislation, as well as federal laws in both countries, prohibits the mass siphoning off of water from the lakes to be shipped elsewhere. Federal U.S. law, for instance, allows U.S. governors to veto any such move.
"There are regulatory safeguards," he said in an interview after an address to the Niagara Falls Rotary Club recently.
Gray insists any court challenges to water export bans under the North American Free Trade Agreement should fail because water, in its natural state, is not a 'commodity' and therefore should be excluded from the agreement.
Maude Barlow, national chair of the citizens' group Council of Canadians, begs to differ. The author of the new book 'Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water,' said while NAFTA can't force a province to export water, once a province does begin to allow the export of water for sale -- an idea several provinces have toyed with -- then our water becomes a tradeable good under NAFTA and it opens the floodgates to exporting.
Barlow, fresh from a book signing tour in states such as Texas, New Mexico and California, said the states' increasingly desperate water situation was an eye-opener. She said the Pentagon has been getting advice from companies such as weapons maker Lockheed Martin on how to access freshwater from other countries, and that it's becoming a national security issue south of the border.
"I'm telling you, they're in deep trouble," she said in an interview. "It really is a crisis.
"I do feel they'll be coming" for our water.
The IJC says that while the Great Lakes hold about 20 per cent of the entire planet's freshwater supply, less than one per cent of the water is renewed annually by precipitation and inflow from groundwater sources.
"There's no surplus to export," Gray told the Rotary meeting.
The Gordon Water Group, a coalition of scientists, lawyers, policy experts and senior government policy advisors who represent environmental organizations and university research centres, recently released a report saying Canada -- even without the threat of thirsty Americans eyeing our water -- is in the midst of an escalating water crisis.
Entitled 'Changing the Flow,' the report said that Canadians' belief that they have a limitless supply of fresh water is unfounded. The report cited 1,174 boil water advisories due to contaminated water supplies identified by Health Canada in December 2006, calling it "staggering" for a developed nation.
Canadians continue to squander this precious resource: The Gordon Water Group said Canadians use 622 litres of water a day per capita for things such as flushing their toilets and running our factories, one of the highest rates in the world. Between 1991 and 1999, residential water use in Canada soared by 21 per cent, the study found.
Niagara's regional government, which operates the region's six water treatment plants, said the average household uses more than 500,000 litres of water each year, and that at least half of that is unnecessary and wasteful.
Canadians' perception of the Great Lakes epitomizes the myth of abundance, the authors of Changing the Flow said. The lakes were carved out by glaciers during the last ice age and filled with meltwater, but only a tiny percentage of the lakes' water is renewable and available each year, the report said.
The availability of our water supply may be directly tied to our ability to fight climate change: Environment Canada says some experts believe a temperature increase of just 2-4 degrees C could lower the average flow from Lake Ontario by 24 per cent, resulting in a one-metre drop in water levels in some areas of the St. Lawrence River.
A World Wildlife Fund Canada study in 2006 said global warming could lead to enough evaporation to cause water levels in the Great Lakes to drop by up to 1.2 metres. A decline of this magnitude would lead to a drop of up to 17 per cent in hydro-electricity production at power plants, the report said.
Any significant reduction in water levels on the Great Lakes could have a vast economic impact: the IJC says the shipping of goods on the lakes is a $3 billion-a-year industry providing 60,000 jobs on both sides of the border, and 40 million pounds of fish are harvested each year, contributing $3.5 billion to the countries' economies. In addition, the IJC estimates recreational boating is a $2 billion industry while recreational anglers account for a $2.5 billion industry.
Ian Barrett, an aquatic specialist with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority which oversees a watershed covering more than 2,400 square kilometres in Niagara and parts of the City of Hamilton and Haldimand County, said change is a constant with the Great Lakes: since the last ice age, water levels have routinely fluctuated.
The difference is that those changes often happen over centuries, so habitats have time to adapt. A sudden change in lake levels could pose a serious threat to shoreline and coast marsh areas, which are typically the most productive in terms of diversity of plant and animal species, including hatcheries.
"It's the accelerated (change) that will cause the most problems," he said.
Environmental crusader Robert F. Kennedy said out-of-control suburban sprawl in the southwestern U.S. coupled with wasteful agricultural water usage -- the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of freshwater withdrawn from lakes, rivers and aquifers world-wide -- is spawning a water crisis that will only get worse.
He told a conference for the International Association for Great Lakes Research in Peterborough in May that Canadians must pressure their governments to fight attempts by water-starved U.S. states to get their hands on our water.
"We are in the midst of a water crisis that has no end in sight, and the place people are looking to solve it is Canada," he said.
Gray said it's too difficult and expensive to ship water in large quantities, and said states such as California are examining desalination of seawater. But desalination is costly, too: five to 10 times as much as the treatment of freshwater, according to Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank.
It also carries its own environmental baggage: The Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization, said a new report released in April raised concerns about the environmental impact of desalination and the fact it's much more expensive than traditional water treatment.
In the Los Angeles Times in April, Mindy McIntyre, water program manager with the California Planning and Conservation League, went further. She called desalination "the SUV of water," saying it takes large amounts of energy to turn saltwater into fresh water, contributing to climate change through more greenhouse gases -- thereby threatening freshwater supplies even further.
The Council of Canadians' Barlow said extracting oil from the oilsands of Alberta was once considered too expensive, too. Then oil prices soared as demand increased.
"Now they can't pump it (oilsands oil) out fast enough," she said.
Former U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci, in a radio interview in 2005, said he found it odd that Canada is more than willing to sell non-renewable oil, natural gas, uranium and coal, but "water is off the table, and water is renewable.
"It doesn't make sense to me," he said.
© Copyright 2008 Metroland Media Group Ltd.