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Debate on bulk water exports to U.S. resurfaces despite recent droughts in Canada

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Recent articles in the Globe and MailYahoo News and the Vancouver Sun signal that the debates on bulk water exports are resurfacing; and not only because of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair's comments as environment minister in Quebec.

The article in the Globe and Mail states, "..the country's most valuable resource of all -- water -- is the least discussed and most misunderstood. Even acknowledging water's potential economic value has become taboo for politicians and policy-makers... The notion of exporting water is a political no-go zone. Ottawa and most provinces have banned bulk exports."

In 2012, the federal government passed Bill C-383 which bans interbasin transfers into international rivers. However, it does not cover non-boundary waters or water resources in the North. It is still highly problematic that the Act narrows the definition of water removals and diversions to bulk removals of 50,000 litres or more and exempts water in manufactured goods including beverages.

Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow said, "Bill C-383 does not apply to water resources in the North, which have been the subject of ridiculous proposals by right-wing think tanks. Therefore Bill C-383 is effectively not a comprehensive ban on bulk water exports."

Members of Parliament raised concerns that the bill does not ban all bulk water exports. And the bans that provinces have implemented are only voluntary bans. Liberal water critic Francis Scarpaleggia raised the concern about the potential for a province to lift its ban on bulk water exports.

Political Director Brent Patterson has warned, "Any province that approves bulk water exports, would automatically put pressure on every other province because the NAFTA Chapter 11 provision could be used by a company denied permission to export water from any other province."

There is a reason that exporting water should continue to be a political no-go zone: we don't have water in such an abundance of water that we can divert or ship it to the U.S.

B.C. and Alberta experienced some of the worst droughts this summer and scientists predict that it will only get worse. This on top of the 1,838 drinking water advisories in place in January in Canada and the fact that water sources are being threatened by pipelines, fracking, tar sands expansion and mining.

Ontario and Quebec have also has experienced record levels of drought, although not as severe as the west. Still, there were six major droughts in southern Ontario since 1998 and the first six months of 2012 had been the driest since 1958. 

With trade agreements like the Canada-EU Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement, once we turn the taps on to export and sell water, it is going to be very hard to turn them off.

As well water in some regions is not actually the federal or provincial governments' to sell. Today, most of B.C. is on unceded Indigenous territory. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously recognized Aboriginal title to 1700 square kilometres of land to the Tsilhqot'in Nation giving them the right to determine how their lands were used. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has emphasized the intimate link between land and water. In a submission on B.C.'s new Water Sustainability Act, UBCIC wrote, "As an incidence of our Aboriginal Title to our territories, Indigenous Peoples have jurisdiction over the waters in our territories... Indeed, it is nearly impossible to imagine an Aboriginal or Treaty right that does not depend upon water."

In regions where treaties have been signed, Merrell-Anne Phare, Executive Director/Legal Counsel Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, has pointed out that, "many First Nations assert that their ancestors did not relinquish any of their rights to water."

Indigenous water rights must be respected and, as the Truth and Reconciliation report recommended, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be implemented as a critical step for reconciliation. Several causes in the UNDRIP relate to water protection but particularly Article 32-2 which notes: "States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources."

Water should be accurately quantified but even if we knew the quantities now, we cannot predict what water availability is going to be in the coming years nor even over the next year.

Rather than transporting water as a band-aid solution to drought, we must keep water in watersheds and look at why communities are running dry. We can learn from California's tragic situation that governments must be willing to say no to oil and gas, bottled water and the big agriculture industries and create jobs that don't put a strain on water sources.

The Council of Canadians urges the next federal government to develop a comprehensive national water policy that bans all bulk water exports, excludes water from NAFTA and other trade agreements and recognizes water as a human right, commons and public trust.

Photo of Yukon River by Bruce Barrett

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