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Water markets: The Alberta government will face a battle

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The Council of Canadians hosted a roundtable meeting in Edmonton today bringing over a dozen Alberta environmental, social justice, labour and First Nations groups together to discuss the threat of water markets in Alberta. Among them were representatives of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Public Interest Alberta, Sierra Club, Treaty 8 First Nations, CUPE Alberta, Treaty 6 First Nations, the Environmental Law Centre, the Parkland Institute and members of landowner and surface rights groups.

Alberta is the first Canadian province to experiment with an open market for the sale and purchase of water licenses.In 1999, the Alberta government introduced the Alberta Water Act, which maintained FITFIR and for the first time allowed “water transfers,” or the right to exchange all or part of a water license between users. But it wasn’t until 2006, when the Alberta government – realizing there was no more water to give away – stopped issuing water licenses in the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan River basins, actually created the conditions for Canada’s first market for water. Senior license holders who use far less than their allotted amount saw an opportunity to make huge profits by selling access to public water resources.

Now Alberta is considering expanding this system to the rest of the province.

In 2008, Environment Minister Rob Renner announced that the government would be reviewing the current water allocation system. It commissioned three reports all recommending deregulated markets allowing for water licenses to be transfered without public oversight. The line is that if water is priced, people will use it more wisely. Water markets have proven to be disastrous in Chile, Australia and other parts of the world where they have been established. In Chile, residents and small farmers have lost access to water while the majority of licences are owned by large energy and mining corporations.

At the meeting, groups raised concerns with the lack of public consultation. The Alberta government wants consultations wrapped up in June, yet none have taken place so far, and few Albertans are actually even aware of the issue. There are indication from the Alberta government that there may be nothing more than last minute online consultations.

First Nations groups have not been consulted in the process so far and the Assembly of First Nations has publicly declared markets a violation of First Nations Treaty rights.

Markets are antithetical to the principles of water as a human right and a public resource. The market system allows for water to be distributed according to ability to pay. In Alberta, this means municipalities will need to compete with big oil and gas corporations for water. It will also mean the public will lose its ability to control a vital resource.

A number of groups that convened in Edmonton today plan to roll out a joint campaign to send a strong message of opposition to the Alberta government. They will be inviting local governments and members of the general public to join them.

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