Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 25, 2004
We waste water, drop by drop
Rich in the rarest resources, we must educate ourselves to stave off drought
By SUZANNE ELSTON
Canadians are the gatekeepers of the world's greatest natural resource. Without this resource, all life on the planet fades within a day or two. And while Canadians squander this resource with impunity, a quarter of the world's population barely has enough of it to stay alive. On a global scale, this resource is so scarce that it prompted Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World Bank, to speculate that the wars of the 21st century would be fought over it.
This resource is water, and the greatest single reserve of fresh water is found within the Great Lakes basin. This one-time only gift, left behind tens of thousand of years ago by retreating glaciers, contains 20 per cent of all of the fresh water on the planet. The 40 million Canadians and Americans who share in this bounty only represent two-thirds of one per cent of the world's population.
Great Lakes basin
While it would appear that the Great Lakes basin has more than enough water to share with other areas of the planet less bountifully endowed, in reality, only one per cent of the water contained in the basin in renewed each year. As a result, it requires a careful balance of withdrawal and return to manage this resource. Until now, part of this balancing has meant a prohibition on any large-scale withdrawals of water.
Since 1909, this management has been the responsibility of the International Joint Commission. The IJC has successfully played the role as watchdog of the Great Lakes; protecting them, dealing with any transborder disputes and reporting on their condition.
Unfortunately, all that is set to change. An organization known as the Council of Great Lakes Governors has released a series of agreements known as the Annex Agreements 2001 that would authorize the widespread diversion of Great Lakes waters outside the watershed basin.
It's important to note that unlike the IJC, of which Canada is a full partner, full membership to the Council is only extended to the eight U.S. governors whose states border on the Great Lakes. Canada's two border provinces, Ontario and Quebec, have what's called an associate membership.
The original intent of the Annex Agreements was to allow communities within the neighbouring states, but outside the Great Lakes basin, to access their waters. Unfortunately, the Annex makes no distinction between water uses inside the Great Lakes water basin and water uses outside the Great Lakes ecosystem.
According to the Council of Canadians, this will leave the door open to long-distance water removals and even water exports. More importantly, the waters of the Great Lakes are currently protected from international trade pressure. If passed, the agreements will not be able to withstand challenges from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The clock is ticking. Although the Annex Agreements were three years in the making, the public was only given a 90-day consultation period, effective July 19. Stakeholders only had until Oct. 18 to voice their opinion on a document that most people have never heard of. To date there has been no public or political debate on the agreements in Canada, nor have the First Nations peoples been consulted, despite the fact that much of the water affected by these agreements is on territorial land.
After Oct. 18, the agreements can be approved and sent to the U.S. Congress for legislation. Whether Canada chooses to enact the agreements as law is a moot point. Once the agreements are approved the ecosystem approach to managing the Great Lakes will be gone, and so will control over the greatest single source of fresh water in the world.
As Canadians, as citizens of the world, we cannot let that happen.
Canada's Walter and Gordon Duncan Foundation (www.gordonfn.org) has some good background information on the Annex Agreements.
The Council of Great Lakes Governor's website is located at www.cglg.org.
The International Joint Commission's (www.ijc.org) latest report, theTwelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (www.ijc.org/php/publications/html/12br/english/report/index.html) , was released in September 2004.
For the complete text of the Annex Agreements, visit the state of Ohio's Division of Water Planning at www.ohiodnr.com/water/planing/greatlksgov/anx2001txt.htm.
For more information about the global water crisis, you can download Maude Barlow's excellent report, Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply from www.canadians.org.
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