According to an Associated Press story from last Friday, at least 36 American states are facing water shortages in the next five years, because of “a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess.”
Water is, or will soon be, in short supply in much of Africa, Australia and Asia.
At last count, more than 1.1 billion people in the world had no access to safe drinking water.
In Canada, the picture is very different.
Our small population scattered over a giant land mass owns about nine per cent of the world’s usable fresh water and, with no end in sight, we use it freely.
The average Canadian uses 350 litres of water a day, compared to a world average of 20 to 40 litres.
It’s not just that we take a lot of showers, or grow a lot of grass; right at the moment our economy is booming on tar sands oil, for every barrel of which we contaminate a barrel of water, and sequester it in tailings ponds so big they’re visible from the space station.
Hey, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, eh?
But the world is an ever-changing place, and as time goes on, it’s going to get harder and harder to justify hoarding our unfair share of the planet’s water.
Some of those hungry nations will be eyeing our golf courses and lawns, and even our oilfields, and thinking they could put all that water to better use.
Not that the people most in need of our water are in any position to demand it from us.
The biggest threat to Canada’s love affair with water comes from others just as besotted as ourselves, who have almost used theirs up.
Canada is signatory to trade deals in which, if water were to be deemed a commodity, we could do nothing to protect it.
This will be a national challenge for the near and distant future: to share our water, as eventually we must, without commodifying it and losing all control.
Under NAFTA today, the US has guaranteed access to Canadian commodities such as oil and natural gas.
That means that no matter what kind of energy crisis Canadians might face, we have no right to protect supplies for our own use until all our trade commitments are met.
Begin to sell bulk water, and it falls under the same rules.
Canadians could find themselves facing water shortages while the reservoirs are drained to feed the fountains of Las Vegas.
Up until now, the courts have prevented bulk exports, but pressure will increase to make Canada’s fresh water supply “open for business.”
All over the country there are communities where the logging, mining, or fishing is finished, all the resources gone except the water.
They’re going to be under increasing pressure to exploit that resource until it’s gone too.
Water’s worth a lot of money, and it’s going to get more so.
It’s cheap to extract, easy to handle, and there’s no cleanup, so the profit margins are fantastic.
Selling bulk water would create jobs in remote areas, just like oil does now.
It would also hasten the day when we’re in the same situation as Nevada, Florida and California.
Canada needs to learn water conservation.
There’s no reason, as a water-rich nation, that we should try to get down to the world average consumption, but we could do a lot better than we do.
Our cities could practice water recycling, our farms could move toward organic methods and smaller-scale meat production, and reduce their impacts on water.
We could enforce real water standards, with consequences for polluters.
We could insist that oil be worth extracting, in real terms, not just in dollars. That last one would be easy — no need even to regulate.
The day Canada stops providing tax subsidies to the oil sands developers is the day the assault on the boreal forest and its fresh water supply abruptly ends.
We could be developing clear policies on how we plan to share with a water-starved world.
We’re not going to get away with holding on to Canada’s vast supplies of fresh water forever, but we could regulate how it’s dispensed.
I move that not one litre leaves Canada till we conserve it out of our own use.
If we used water rationally, and returned our waste back into the environment clean, we’d conserve millions of litres that we could afford to share.
And we could require the same of our customers: use it wisely or it’s not for sale.
There’s nothing frivolous, or even nationalistic in this idea.
It happens by an accident of history and geography that Canada now has control of most of North America’s water.
We could ‘get rich quick’ on it, or we could be responsible stewards, and still make enough money from the wealthy customers that we could afford to share with poorer countries too.
All of this would be so easy to do with a few perfectly reasonable controls on the way we use water, and the conditions under which we trade it.
What do you figure, will we act responsibly this time?
No, I’m not betting on it either.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.