Should Canada share its water wealth with the world?
In California, a drought that is entering its fourth year has led to the state’s first ever water restrictions. A year ago, governor Jerry Brown asked residents to voluntarily curb their water usage by 20%. But Californians ignored the warning.
Last Wednesday, the state implemented an executive order imposing a 25% reduction of the water supply agencies that services 90% of California residents.
“People should realize we’re in a new era,” said Brown. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day – that’s going to be a thing of the past.”
The story, of course, extends beyond the rambling Great Central Valley, where grapes, olives, almonds, tomatoes and potatoes are abundant. California is a primary source of food for much of North America, and it’s unsurprising that prices for fresh produce are rising everywhere as a result of its historic drought. What may be a shock is how much they have risen and how much more they are expected to rise.
In B.C., the price of produce rose by between 5.7% and 9.6% between July of July, 2013 and July, 2014, says a study commissioned by credit union VanCity and written by Brent Mansfield, Co-chair of the BC Food Systems Network called “Wake up Call: California Drought & B.C.’s Food Security“. The study warns that if the trend continues, it could impact the average monthly grocery bill to the tune of $60. That’s because we get 95% of our broccoli and 74% of our lettuce from California.
The lesson of the report? B.C. needs to become more food self reliant, says Mansfield, who notes that vegetable crop production fell by 20.4% between 1991 and 2011. It’s especially important to reverse this trend, says the report, because it’s unlikely that California’s condition will be remedied anytime soon as its supply of groundwater has become seriously depleted.
But can’t we just change suppliers? Surely there are other parts of the world can grow lettuce, right? That question is not so easy to solve because lots of places are suffering from droughts, including Mexico, Mongolia, Northern India, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and equatorial Africa.
Canada has water wealth. And some hard choices to make…
One thing Canada has is water. We have a full one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply, in fact. And we are soon going to have to make some hard choices about how it is used.
When scripting the 2006 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, screenwriter Michael G. Wilson considered the motivations of a distinctly modern supervillain, which became the character of Dominic Greene. Greene founded an philanthropic outfit called Greene Planet, which buys large tracts of land, ostensibly for ecological preserves. But he is secretly a member of Quantum, a criminal organization that looks to control the water supply of Bolivia and, presumably, beyond.
“If you remember in Chinatown, if you control the water you control the whole development of the country,” said Wilson of the Bond script. “I think it’s true. Right now it appears to be oil, but there’s a lot of other resources that we don’t think about too much but are all essential, and they’re very limited and every country needs it. Because every country knows that raising the standard of living (and populations are getting bigger) is the way we’re all going.”
How one defines a supervillain may vary from those who smuggle gold in bodycastings to those who entertain the simple, homespun aim of destroying Istanbul by detonating a nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus. But in polls that appear from time to time gauging the world’s “most evil” corporations, the Swiss-based Nestlé is never far from the top.
Nestlé was the target of what was perhaps the most famous corporate boycott in history.
In 1977, the company came under fire after its aggressively marketed breast milk substitutes were pointed to as a cause of infant deaths in economically underdeveloped countries, such as Bangladesh. Critics said babies were dying because the formula needed to be mixed with water, which was often polluted. And impoverished mothers were sometimes using less of the formula than they should have, in part because they were unable to produce breast milk after ceasing to breast feed in favour of a bottle.
Nestlé has also been criticized, at various times, for exploiting farmer by not adopting a fair trade policy, for illegally extracting groundwater in Brazil, and for union busting in Colombia.
Today, Nestlé is under attack in California because its 383,000-square-foot plant on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians reservation in the Mojave Desert continues to bottle and export water during the drought. The company can do so because the reservation is considered a sovereign nation by the U.S. government, which also means no one really knows how much water Nestlé is taking for its Arrowhead and Nestle branded bottled spring water.
Calvin Louie, general manager of the water district that contains the Morongo Band, says the community is of two minds about Nestlé.
“Arrowhead provides a lot of jobs, and that helps the economy,” he said. “On the other hand, Arrowhead has a reputation of going into small communities and taking advantage – and basically, pump them dry and ‘good to the last drop.’”
In British Columbia, More than 130,000 people have signed a petition against the government’s plans to sell B.C.’s water for $2.25 per million litres to Nestlé and others, under its newly revised Water Sustainability Act.
“Under this new pricing structure Nestlé and corporations like it will be able to buy up Canada’s water for next to nothing,” says the petition. “When over one hundred thousand people objected to Nestlé taking 285 million litres of Canada’s water for free and selling it around the world, this wasn’t the fix they had in mind. At a time when water is in short supply globally, it is outrageous that Nestlé can draw limitless amounts of Canada’s natural resources to sell for a huge profit.”
Are such concerns just an alarmist fantasy or is there really a long term possibility that Canada’s abundant water supply could be threatened?
In 2008, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has a master’s degree in environmental law, warned that Canada should resist the urge to help America with it water problem. Kennedy said the U.S. was about to come knocking on Canada’s door.
“If you talk to government officials, everybody says they are looking for Canada to bail them out,” he told a crowd in Banff. Kennedy said huge commodity transfers of water won’t help the underlying issue, which is that the U.S. needs to become water self-sustainable.
“In Russia and elsewhere, they have suffered the economic injury that results from big water transfers. Some of the largest freshwater bodies on Earth are now desert. Fishing fleets and communities have been destroyed,” he said.
In 2013, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board of Nestlé ruffled feathers when a 2005 interview was revived in which he said declaring water a human right was “an extreme solution.” The comment, which Brabeck-Letmathe said was taken out of context, inflamed a debate on the nature of water that has continued.
Regardless of Brabeck-Letmathe’s intentions, there is a lot of evidence that way we view water is about to undergo a sea-change. In fact, a 2012 report from the U.S. State Department says the days of wars waged over water are probably not that far off.
“Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts,” says the report. “However, we judge that as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years.”
In 2001, U.S. President George Bush mentioned he wanted to talk to Ottawa about a trade agreement that would help alleviate U.S. shortages.
“We’re absolutely not going to export water, period,” the then-environment minister David Anderson responded. But the inquiry has been raised many times since, including recent queries from the European Union.
Dehydration occurs when water intake falls below water loss. A two to five percent loss of hydration may go unnoticed. At five to ten percent dizziness, fatigue and a lack of appetite begin to set in. A dehydration level of more than ten percent will result in a deterioration of mental faculties, darkened urine and lowered blood pressure. A decrease in hydration of more than twenty percent is almost always fatal.
No such catalogue of symptoms exists for the dehydration of a country. But we must watch for them closely because our water may turn out to be more valuable a commodity than we currently realize. In a 2004 speech, Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed said water, not oil, was Alberta’s most important resource.
“I predict that the United States will be coming after our fresh water aggressively within three to five years,” wrote Lougheed in an article for the Globe and Mail. “I hope that when the day comes, Canada will be ready.”