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Canada’s Biggest Nightmare: The Impending Water Wars

January 15, 2017


Rising sea levels, the consequence of human-inspired carbon output into the atmosphere, is an extremely urgent problem. However, it’s largely perceived as a global problem of longer-term consequence, and one that society is largely discounting to future generations. This is an obvious mistake, because of the staggering impacts that rising sea levels will have on human migration from coastal areas, from South Asia to the United States to Northern Europe. Because it’s a cross-border issue at least rising sea levels is receiving some attention in the media.

What’s being ignored is another water issue, one that will likely have a huge impact on my country, Canada.

When the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was negotiated between Canada and the United States during the eighties, signed on January 2, 1988. the aspect of exporting water to the U.S. was not addressed. It’s not clear why Conservative Prime Minister Brian Muloney’s government didn’t push to have the blocking of bulk water exports included in the FTA. The issue of water exports was also ignored by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect on January 1, 1994.

The highly contentious issue of bulk water exports to the U.S. is one of the most emotive topics for Canadians. However, because little has been written and reported on the subject since these trade agreements were launched (Canada’s media is a rather sleepy, reactive lot), a hot-button topic has not been on the radar of Canadians.


Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians (a left-leaning, social action non-profit group), and author of Blue Future (third in a trilogy on water), has led a persistent fight for the responsible use of water in Canada and around the globe. As Barlow has stated unequivocally: “Everything is now for sale. Even those areas of life that we once considered sacred like health and education, food and water and air and seeds and genes and a heritage. It is all now for sale.”

In 2013, a private member’s bill was passed to prohibit bulk water exports. Bill C-383 was an amendment to the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act and the International River Improvements Act. The Bill did go some distance to ban inter-basin water transfers into international rivers. However, there are areas, such as manufacturing and potential water exports in northern Canada, that were left out of the legislation. Furthermore, there has yet to be a court or NAFTA tribunal challenge to this legislation.

Gary Doer, former Manitoba premier and former Ambassador to the U.S., stated in 2014 that he expects water export disputes to escalate in the next few years, making the Keystone XL pipeline controversy “look silly.”

Chapter 11 of NAFTA, Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), is the padded brass knuckles of a legislated trade agreement that strips the sovereignty of national governments. Crossing one’s fingers and hoping that interests in the United States, both government and business, will not exert pressure on Canada to allow bulk water exports is an exercise for fools and the naive.

President Trump will likely insist on re-negotiating NAFTA, which would give U.S. companies and state governments the opportunity to push for—indeed sue—for access to Canada’s abundant water wealth. The World Resources Institute identifies Canada as a “low stress” region, while the United States is “high stress.” One has to be only vaguely familiar with the extreme drought conditions that have plagued parts of the U.S. for the past decade to appreciate the urgency of the problem facing American politicians.

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Canada’s looming water problem is set in the context of a global crisis. We’re not just water wealthy in Canada, but live in what the United Nations has stated as being the best country in which to live. Consider the serious droughts in Jordan, Syria (and its extreme violence), India, Brazil and North Korea, to name a few countries, and Canada’s bulk water export issue seems trivial in comparison. Nevertheless, succumbing to future pressure from the United States to allow companies and states access to Canada’s water resources is a slippery point from which no return will likely be possible.

This raises the acute need for national leadership, supported by provincial leadership. And it requires an engaged electorate and leadership from Canada’s business community as part of a coalition of interests to demonstrate the country’s intent and will to protect and preserve its water resources from the United States. President Trump, who has amply demonstrated an uncanny ability to appeal to the emotional instincts of Americans and to get deals done, will make mincemeat of Canada’s attempt to save its water.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Canada has probably one of the largest resources of fresh water in the world. Water is going to be — already is — a very valuable commodity and I’ve always found it odd that Canada is so willing to sell oil and natural gas and uranium and coal, which are by their nature finite. But talking about water is off the table, yet water is renewable.

— Paul Cellucci (U.S. ambassador to Canada, 2001 to 2005)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2017 2:21 am

    This issue wasn’t even on my radar and I wasn’t aware that Canada might export water, but of course it makes sense. Have shared your interesting article with friends and in several social media locations.

    • January 16, 2017 4:18 am

      Thanks for reading my post. It’s been put on Twitter, LinkedIn, FB and other sites. Unfortunately, Canadians are a sleepy lot, waiting for crises to emerge. They’re more focused on day-to-day stuff.

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