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Protecting the right to water means banning fracking

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The government has conceded the human right to water exists, but thats not enough.

Alarm bells continue to sound in the media about fracking -- from heated debates about its safety in Illinois, New York, and California to even the threat it poses to German beer.

Fracking is a process used to extract natural gas or oil trapped in shale rock and coal beds. Despite industry assurances, communities are increasingly reluctant to believe that the use of millions of litres of water, thousands of litres of chemicals, and thousands of kilograms of sand to blast apart rock formations will not have significant impacts on water, the climate, and public health.

Communities are increasingly calling on governments to protect their water sources from fracking. Inverness County in Nova Scotia was the latest municipality to pass a bylaw that bans fracking within county limits. Colchester County, also in Nova Scotia, has refused to allow the Bay of Fundy to become a “Petri dish” and recently scrapped a plan that would have allowed millions of litres of fracking wastewater to be released into the local watershed.

Fracking's threat to water sources begs the question: what is the federal government's responsibility? Regulation for fracking falls largely on the provinces’ shoulders because of their power to issue drilling and water permits. However, the federal government has a responsibility to regulate fracking under the National Pollutant Release Inventory as well as federal legislation such as the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Although Environment Minister Peter Kent has admitted to having the ability to stop fracking, the federal government has largely remained silent on the issue. The federal government has initiated federal reviews on fracking but access to information requests show Environment Canada’s review relies on industry information, calling the integrity of the results into question.

The federal government must also regulate fracking under its obligation to uphold the human right to water and sanitation. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. The UN Human Rights Council has also passed resolutions outlining governments’ obligations concerning the right to water and sanitation. This right is now enshrined in international law and all countries must ensure its implementation.

In the past, the Canadian government had consistently denied that the human right to water and sanitation even existed. But last summer, Minister Kent finally conceded that the human right to water not only exists, but that it is integral to the right to an adequate standard of living under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN's special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, wrote specifically about fracking and its relationship to the human right to water during her visit to the United States in 2011. De Albuquerque's U.S.  report notes the concerns raised about the impacts of fracking on water and recommends that countries need to take "a holistic consideration of the right to water by factoring it into policies having an impact on water quality, ranging from agriculture to chemical use in products to energy production activities."

Unfortunately, the federal government’s omni-budget bills passed last year are glaring examples of the failure to take a holistic approach to protect the right to water from fracking projects.For example, the changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act resulted in the cancellation of 3,000 project reviews across the country, some of which were fracking projects or applications related to fracking. One cancelled review was for an application from energy company Encana that requested permission to withdrawal 10,000,000 litres of water per day -- roughly the same amount of water used by 30,000 people in a day -- from Fort Nelson River for its fracking project. The project will seriously impact the Fort Nelson First Nation’s lifeline and has been fervently opposed by the community.

Fracking projects are taking place in indigenous communities, some of which are already struggling with access to clean and safe drinking water. At any given time, there are more than 100 First Nation communities under boil water advisories. The assessments cancelled under the CEAA and the 99 per cent of lakes and rivers that are left unprotected under the new Navigation Protection Act will only exacerbate violations of the human right to water.

With Canada recently becoming the only country to withdraw from the UN drought convention and the ongoing muzzling of scientists making international headlines, the Conservative government would do well to step up to the plate and protect water sources by banning fracking in Canada.

This article originally ran in Embassy Foreign Policy Newspaper's Water & Oceans Policy Briefing on Wednesday, June 5, 2013.

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