Should fresh water resources in Canada be viewed as a commercial

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Faculty of Science and General Studies
SCIENCE PROGRAM
English Comprehensive Assessement
(Épreuve synthèse de programme)
Sample Stand-alone Assignment:
Persuasive Research-based English Essay
[Assigned Topic: Should fresh water resources in Canada be viewed as a commercial commodity and
should corporations be permitted to sell water in large bulk to other countries, including the United States?]
Canada Should Not Sell Bulk Water Exports to Other Countries
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Science ESP English Stand-alone Assessment
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From the feelings of awe and respect water evoked in Canada’s earliest explorers, to the
ethereal images of spirituality and serenity conjured up by a Tom Thomson painting, water has
always played a role in articulating the Canadian identity. It is perhaps for that reason that
Canadian public opinion has always reacted negatively to the idea of selling our most precious
natural resource. However, rapid industrialization and technological development have brought
about a world where freshwater reserves are dwindling and consumption is higher than ever. The
looming prospect of climate change and its possible effects on the availability of freshwater
resources poses serious threats to our ability to ward off the growing pressures to export our
water to other countries. Since the 1960s business leaders and private sector lobbyists have
proposed long distance diversions through canals or pipelines or ocean-bound container
shipments as the solution to the global water crisis (De Villiers 312-313). Nevertheless, by
analyzing the environmental and economic costs and consequences of allowing private
corporations to sell freshwater in bulk to other countries, it will be easy to see that bulk water
exports will only worsen the situation of water scarcity while failing to address the real issues of
sound water management throughout the world. The loss of control of our freshwater resources
in Canada and recognition that water is a finite resource are also issues which need to be
understood.
One of the main reasons to oppose bulk water exports is the harmful environmental
consequences of large scale water extractions. Large scale diversions would involve “major
changes to the natural environment”, namely widespread flooding caused by the interruption of
river flows, transfer of life forms between different basins, and even a change in atmospheric and
oceanic conditions (Lasserre 145). Although the ultimate consequences of these changes remain
uncertain they will be irreversible once the diversion has been carried out. In addition, scientists
warn that withdrawing extensive amounts of water from water basins has the potential to destroy
ecosystems. Bulk withdrawals do affect habitats from both the diverted and the augmented
rivers. Canada already diverts a significant amount of water for hydropower generation. These
existing water diversions of hydroelectric megaprojects are already causing “local climate
change, reduced biodiversity, mercury poisoning, loss of forest, and the destruction of fisheries
habitat and wetlands” (Barlow et al. 211-212). Laval University professor Frederic Lasserre says
that although biologists do not agree on the magnitude of these repercussions, the international
academic literature reports that impacts begin when between 2 percent and 10 percent of the
river flow is diverted (Lasserre 143). Transferring large amounts of water from one region to
another will unsettle natural breeding grounds of wildlife and new drought zones will be created
as aquifers are depleted and rivers and lakes are dried up through damming and diversion
(Barlow et al. 211-212). For instance, the diversion of the Colorado River has dried up the delta
so that it no longer flows to the ocean, all of which has “drastically stressed the river’s aquatic
ecosystems” (Pentland et al. 164). Large scale diversions of Canadian water to the United States
of similar or greater magnitude would have disastrous consequences for the environment.
Similarly, bulk water exports by container shipments would involve the pumping of water into
supertankers at the port of origin. Overpumping water could decrease water levels and deplete
surrounding aquifers and wetlands faster than they could be replenished (De Villiers 287).
An equally important impediment to the realization of bulk water exports has been the
economic unfeasibility of the schemes that have been proposed. Water transported by aqueducts
over long distances is costly because “it is expensive to operate these infrastructures” and also
because “the initial investment is huge” (Lasserre 152). For example, the two most ambitious
plans proposed were the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) scheme which
would divert water from British Columbia’s rivers southward through the Rocky Mountain
Trench and the Great Recycling and Northern Development (GRAND) Canal proposal which
would involve a dyke across James Bay and diversions via the Great Lakes southward and
westward (Pentland et al. 164). These two plans would require initial investments of at least half
a trillion and 100 billion dollars respectively (De Villiers 314). Likewise, export in water tankers
would pose significant logistic difficulties in addition to being costly. Large tankers are
expensive to operate with costs of transport depending on current oil tanker market conditions,
fuel prices, distance travelled and the size of tanker involved. It would also have to be decided
whether the tanker would make the return trip empty or find suitable liquid cargo for the return
trip that would not contaminate the water on the next trip out. The cost would double if there was
no suitable return trip freight. (“Exporting Canada’s Water I” 2). Furthermore, alternative water
sources are becoming “technologically feasible and economically affordable”. In particular,
seawater desalination technology has “rapidly improved” and its costs have been “dramatically
reduced”. Desalination has become a very affordable water-producing technology for urban and
industrial consumers (Lasserre 152).
Trading water in bulk over the global marketplace also carries the risk of losing control
of our own water supply in the presence of free trade regimes like the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Water is considered a tradable good under the terms of NAFTA
when it is not in its natural state. Theoretically, water ceases to be in its natural state when it is
extracted from its source to be made into a good (e.g., bottled water or as an ingredient in a
beverage). In other words, the mere action of removing the water and putting it in a container
legally turns water into a tradable good, which is precisely what water corporations want to do.
Water corporations can certainly make use of the presence of these ambiguities and legal
loopholes to take advantage of the situation. Some activists argue that any commercial
transaction of any volume of bulk water would essentially classify all of the country’s water as a
tradable good covered under the provisions of NAFTA (Wood 300). Environmental lawyer
David Boyd says that if water were to be defined as a commodity, NAFTA would restrict the
Canadian government’s ability to ban water exports (Pentland et al. 172). In fact, the very
attempt of a government to ban bulk water exports would trigger foreign investors’ NAFTA
rights, and they could demand financial compensation for “lost opportunities”. For instance,
California company Sun Belt Water Inc. filed a lawsuit in 1999 against Canada after it had been
granted a license to export water by tanker to California and the British Columbia government
imposed a moratorium on the export of bulk water following a public outcry (Wood 305).
Another problem arises particularly if the Canadian government were to grant corporations the
right to remove even reduced amounts of water. If a Canadian company gained the right to
export Canadian water, American multinationals would have the right to sue under NAFTA’s
“national treatment” clause to help themselves as much Canadian water as they wanted (Pentland
et al. 172).
Water exports should be opposed ultimately because water is a finite resource and it is
not inexhaustible. At the heart this issue is the common misconception that water is a renewable
resource. It only seems renewable because it keeps falling from the sky. However, this is not the
case as only part of the total amount of runoff is actually renewable. For example, only about 1
percent of the water in the Great Lakes is replaced every year through the hydrological cycle,
such as the water supplied by tributary streams and precipitation. The other 99 percent is fossil
water that resulted from the melting of glaciers thousands of years ago (De Villiers 298).
Resources need time to replenish themselves. Water flowing into the ocean is not wasted but is
part of a natural hydrological cycle that has balanced the earth’s ecosystems for millennia. If we
were to interrupt and permanently distort these processes on a massive scale we would tamper
with systems that have sustained life on earth with great success. (Barlow et al. 212).
Furthermore, the need to hold on to our freshwater resources becomes more apparent in the face
of climate change and the completely unexpected effects that it might have on our water supply.
Some of the newer global warming prediction models show much of the current Canadian and
northern American agricultural lands “turning arid and unproductive”. In other words, Canada
may get warmer but also a lot drier (De Villiers 66).
Evidently, as the general public has become increasingly aware of the damaging
environmental consequences that bulk water exports would entail for Canada, it follows that the
Canadian government should not allow corporations to sell water to foreign countries. This is
particularly true in light of the fact that the options proposed are relatively expensive and don’t
make any economic sense compared to other more convenient long term solutions like water
desalination and better conservation of this precious resource. Importing water in this way for
only those who could afford it would reduce the necessity and obligation to find real, sustainable,
and ethical solutions to water problems in other countries.
Works Cited
Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke. Blue Gold: The Battle against Corporate Theft of the
World’s Water. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003. Print.
De Villiers, Marq. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. Toronto:
McClelland & Stewart, 2003. Print.
“Exporting Canada’s Water I: Outside of NAFTA.” Sustainable Development Briefing
Note. Policy Research Initiative, Government of Canada, January 2005. Web. 25 Nov.
2008.
Laserre, Frédéric. “Drawers of Water: Water Diversions in Canada and Beyond.” Eau
Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water. Compiled by K. Bakker. Vancouver: UBC
Press, 2007. 143-162. Print.
Pentland, Ralph and Adèle Hurley “Thirsty Neighbours: A Century of Canada-US
Transboundary Water Governance.” Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water.
Compiled by K. Bakker. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 163-183. Print.
Wood, Chris. Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America. Vancouver:
Raincoast, 2008. Print.
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