Looking at the water trade

Over the last four decades, people's perception of water has changed. In 1970, buying a bottle of water was unheard of. You'd use a water fountain. Today, as public fountains become scarce, the bottled water industry soars.

Over the last four decades, people’s perception of water has changed.

In 1970, buying a bottle of water was unheard of. You’d use a water fountain.

Today, as public fountains become scarce, the bottled water industry soars.

It’s worth money. A lot of money.

And, once again, water has been placed on the table by international negotiators discussing free trade between the European Union and Canada.

And that has spurred the Council of Canadians to, once again, ask people to consider whether water is a resource owned by all, or a commodity available to the highest bidder.

The council – a national citizens’ organization that was established in 1985 by Maude Barlow, Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood – says the trade talks are a bad deal for the country.

It isn’t the first time they have said this.

When NAFTA was on the table, the council helped divide the nation during the 1988 election by arguing then-prime minister Brian Mulroney was going to sign away Canadian sovereignty.

History has proven the council’s arguments hyperbolic – if not completely wrong – according to International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan.

When it comes to the new European trade deal, the council claims Canadians could be bartering away control of its local resources and services.

This includes health care, postal services and, above all, water.

Foreign nationals could take over sewage and water treatment or other water services, says the council.

In Canada, most, if not all water services are provided by regional governments.

The European Union has wanted sub-national government delegates at trade-talks since they began, and Van Loan says it’s up to those individuals to decide what happens to water.

“In terms of what construction company might build a water treatment plant, I think it’s a good thing if Canadians are getting good quality water treatment in a municipality regardless of who might build it,” he said. “But, in any event, the decisions on whether those things will be covered, because they represent procurement, will be a decision of the provinces and territories at the table.”

According to one of two guys at the table for Yukon, Harley Trudeau, Canadian governments will retain control of water services.

“In the CETA agreements Canada is preserving the right of governments to provide water services to Canadians, so that’s not an issue,” he says. “That is very definite.”

But liberalized trade leads, eventually, to privatization, says the Council of Canadians Trade Campaigner Stuart Trew.

“No one is going to say liberalization leads to privatization,” he says. “The European Union has tried to get water services into every trade deal they’ve signed, but there’s resistance at each step.

“If there were no financial gains in service liberalization, why would these companies support them so much?

“They can clearly see the writing on the wall – they can see that services liberalization leads to opportunities for them. That, to us, means privatization and I don’t know how else you can spin it.”

European companies like Suez Environment and Veolia Environment specialize in providing infrastructure around the world, says Trew.

Both specialize in water. And both are backing the EU during these trade talks.

Canada’s chief trade negotiator told the Council of Canadians, more than once, that water services were on the table, says Trew.

But he said it was up to each province and territory to determine how far they want to go, echoing Van Loan.

And asserting local governments retain control doesn’t mean the worst cannot be realized, says Trew, noting that contracting responsibilities should be regarded for what it is: private companies providing public services.

The issue has already touched the Yukon, when it was discovered in 2009 that Premier Dennis Fentie was conducting secret talks with Alberta-based ATCO, regarding energy.

Whitehorse has no plans to contract the city’s water services, says city manager Dennis Schewfelt.

It only ends in disaster, says Schewfelt, who has had firsthand experience of privatized local water systems in other countries.

“We own and operate the water system here as a public utility,” he says. “And we have no intention of changing that ownership from public hands to the private sector.”

Negotiations for the Canada-European Union Trade Agreement have been postponed, says Trew.

Provinces and territories were told to bring their final offer to a meeting this month in Brussels on procurement of local services, like water. That meeting has been pushed until April, when delegates will be back on Canadian soil, says Trew.

One thing that will not be included in the deal is any discussion of bulk-water exports, says Van Loan.

Canada’s position on that has not changed, he adds.

But globally, that practice is becoming more common.

Last June, Texas-based S2C Global Systems announced in less than a year they would start shipping billions of gallons of water across the Pacific from Sitka, Alaska, to their own water hub at a port on the west coast of India, just south of Mumbia.

From there, smaller boats will ferry water to Asia and the Middle East.

It is an idea that Diane Katz wrote about for the Fraser Institute in the same month.

Right at the beginning of her 54-page report, Katz notes Canada’s strong stance against bulk water exports. She cites a 2009 poll that showed “forbidding bulk water export” is Canadians’ No. 2 priority for government policy, surpassed only by “adopt a national water strategy.”

But with the right research, policies and regulations, she says it may actually be a good idea. Not only can it help thirsty people in other countries and provide a great economic opportunity here at home, it may actually promote better conservation of the resource, she says.

It would also force government to put a proper price tag on water, she says, noting Canadians get water at ridiculously cheap prices.

Starting a competitive market for water upsets Tory Russell, a Whitehorse activist for the Council of Canadians.

“I fundamentally have an issue regarding water as a commodity,” she says. “Where does it stop? These companies are not making water, water is a gift from the planet. Will it be air next? “

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at