Water exports and free markets don’t mix

Schemes to export Canada’s water to the world are uneconomic and unnecessary.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are outraged that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair once advocated the bulk export of water to the United States. They shouldn’t be. Mulcair was a Liberal at the time, and bulk water exports have long been largely a Liberal thing.

In the 1960s, Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson backed one of the most audacious water diversion schemes ever proposed – a United States Army Corps of Engineers plan to divert and dam water from the Yukon, Laird and Peace River systems in Canada’s north to create an 800-kilometre-long reservoir. Known as the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), the $300-billion scheme would then send water east, linking Alberta and the Great Lakes through a navigable waterway, and south, to satisfy the needs of what many considered an inevitably parched United States.

This grandiose plan to replumb the continent, which at one point envisaged the use of nuclear explosives to economically blast out the needed trenches, was pushed by leading politicians across the continent for a decade before being deemed dead in the water in the mid 1970s.

In the 1980s, Quebec’s Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa and future Liberal Prime Minister John Turner backed another audacious water diversion scheme – the GRAND Canal Company’s plan to divert James Bay water from Canada’s north to the United States, to allay the certain water crisis facing Americans. This grandiosity, whose pumps would have been powered by at least six nuclear reactors and which was estimated to cost a mere $100 billion, went belly-up in the 1990s.

In the 2000s, Mulcair, as Quebec’s Liberal Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks, proposed the export of Quebec water to promote regional development. In 2011, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien said it was time for Canada to consider exporting our water to the world, arguing that “water is something that is not finite,” unlike oil and natural gas which we nevertheless export. Chretien, co-chair of the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government, was expressing a view mooted at a water conference his organization was sponsoring that warned of a “hydro-climatic time bomb that could result in increasing conflicts, and possibly wars, over water.”

Now there’s a new push, like the others justified on grounds of looming calamities, among them the droughts and devastation to come in the wake of global warming. “Allowing the world to access Canada’s vast water supplies in a way that is sustainable, responsible and even profitable for Canada may be part of solving the global water crisis,” stated Rhett Larson, an environmental law expert at Arizona State University in a paper published last month by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and sponsored by Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a Calgary and Ottawa-based think tank. The Globe and Mail chimed in on the global water threat last week, with Barrie McKenna advising us consider exports “to prepare for the day when a thirsty and desperate world wants something that we have in abundance.”

Producing water using newest desalination technology comes to about one quarter of a U.S. cent per gallon

The various high-profile, powerfully backed water schemes over the last half century have all failed for one reason – they were and remain massively uneconomic, so much so that no amount of subsidy could keep them afloat. Because they couldn’t be justified on economic grounds, the justification became national security, and now global security. But none of this washes.

If bulk water exports were massively uneconomic in decades past, they are even more so today, thanks to advances in water desalination technology. San Diego’s new desalination plant, the largest in the Western world, will produce 54 million gallons of drinking water at a cost of about half a cent per gallon and meet 10 per cent of San Diego County’s water needs.

The world’s largest plant, in Saudi Arabia, produces 273 million gallons of fresh water a day, helping to make Saudi Arabia a wheat exporter. Smaller desalination plants number in the thousands, present along the coastlines of Spain, Australia, China and India. Israel, which currently obtains 40 per cent of its water from the sea, will meet 50 per cent of its needs by next year. The cost of producing water using Israel’s newest desalination technology comes to about one quarter of a U.S. cent per gallon, making the water component of the average Israeli’s monthly water utility bill about $2.

Because most of the world’s population lives near coastlines, and because modern fracking technology is making the energy needed to run desalination plants cheap, abundant and available in most parts of the world, the threat of widespread water shortages, let alone full-blown crises, belongs to an earlier era. Nor is there a need to fret about bulk water exports and their many potential drawbacks – the environmental risk of depleting watersheds, the loss of personal liberty in expropriating land for water delivery. The free market has determined bulk water export to be unfeasible, and that should settle the matter for those on the left and the right.

Lawrence Solomon is research director of Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.



About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .

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