Wash your hands, 25 cents.
Flush the toilet, add another 75 cents.
Have a five-minute shower — that’ll be $2.50.
It sounds crazy.
Especially given our abundant supply of water.
But Canadians shouldn’t grow complacent.
“There are a number of huge transnational corporations that see water as a big source of profit,” said former BC Human Rights director Kathleen Ruff.
“They see it as the new oil of the 21st century.”
But water should not be privatized for profit, she said.
The resource should be publicly controlled and managed to meet the needs of people and the environment.
The Canadian government doesn’t agree.
At a UN Commission of Human Rights meeting in 2002, attended by 53 countries, Canada was the only nation to vote against a motion to recognize water as a fundamental human right.
“And Canada took this stand without any public debate whatsoever,” said Ruff.
“That’s wrong; we’re in a democracy and the public has a right to know — this is an important issue.”
There are three possible reasons why the federal government took this position, said Council of Canadians representative Anil Naidoo from Ottawa.
It does not consider water a human right — shown by its allowance of longstanding boil-water advisories on many First Nations reserves.
It is interested in commodifying water to generate income.
Or, Canada is concerned the US could lay claim to its water.
Ottawa defends its position by saying it doesn’t want to lose control over water, added Naidoo.
“The Canadian government is concerned the US could demand Canadian water by claiming it under international obligations.
“But this is patently ridiculous.”
Per capita, the US consumes more water than any other country in the world, said Naidoo.
So, they could never justify a human rights claim, he said.
It’s the notion that a resource, like water, can be bought and sold that truly threatens Canada’s control over its water, said Ruff.
Trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade in Services, ensure that, once water is treated as a commodity, Canada will not be able to stop, or even slow down, export of the resource.
“Once you sell water for profit under the trade rules, you can never change that,” said Ruff.
“You have to keep selling it — like our oil and gas.”
Under NAFTA, the percentage of oil Canada exports to the US cannot be changed. The US is always entitled to the same amount, she said.
“Even if you have a shortage in your own country, you can’t cut back.”
And the same trade rules would apply if Canadian water was exported to the US for profit, said Ruff.
“So, it would be extremely dangerous.”
NAFTA is the threat, she said.
“And that’s where Canada needs to protect us.”
Canada is now forced to import oil, because the majority of Canadian oil is exported to the US, she added.
“And, under NAFTA, we can’t do anything about that, we have to keep on supplying them with the same amount.
“So, the US gets more of our oil than we have for our own citizens.”
In addition, under NAFTA, Canada must price its US exports the same as it would its own domestic product, said Ruff.
Both the World Trade Organization and NAFTA see water as a tradable good, subject to the same rules as any other commodity, said Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow in a report.
“Most disturbing is the close alliance between governments, the World Bank, the United Nations and the water companies, giving these corporations undue influence over government policies that favour their interests, like deregulation, free trade and favoured access to upcoming water contracts,” wrote Barlow.
“Canada is a member of the World Bank, and it’s one of the wealthy, powerful G8 countries,” said Ruff.
“And the World Bank has been forcing lots of countries in the developing world to privatize their water.”
In Bolivia one of these transnational corporations forced privatization on the water system of a town, then immediately hiked the rates — making water so expensive that people could no longer afford it, she said.
“There were strikes and demonstrations in the streets, because if you cut off people’s supply to water, they get sick and they die.”
The same thing happened in South Africa, added Ruff.
A big city’s water supply was privatized, and people who couldn’t afford the price increases were cut off.
Outbreaks of diseases, like cholera, followed.
In South Africa, progress had been made defeating cholera, said Ruff.
But, when the water was privatized and prices went through the roof, people started using dirty water and died, specifically children.
Each day, nearly 6,000 children in developing countries die due to lack of clean water and sanitation, according to World Health Organization estimates in 2004.
“There is hardly any issue that’s as important as water,” said Ruff.
“So, what we’re saying is, you have to put the well-being of people first — there are certain things you can’t live without.”
“The best way to protect Canadian water, and keep water in our basins, would be for Canada to endorse the human right to water and to really look at how to give all Canadians that right,” said Naidoo.
“And also to really push the US to start conserving its water and stop over-consuming, abusing and polluting its water.”
Currently, Americans depend on groundwater for 50 per cent of their water supply and are using it faster than nature can replace it.
This puts Canada under pressure to sell its water to the US, which would lead to environmental depletion and could open the floodgates through trade agreements, said Naidoo.
“We are not the solution to the US water crisis,” he said.
“Nature does not waste water; we can’t divert water out of our basins across landscapes and not expect there to be dire consequences upstream. So, if we start selling water to the states, the US problem would just be exported to Canada.”