"Epic struggle" over water looms

The former director of water planning and management for Environment Canada, Ralph Pentland, claims Canadians have reason to worry for the country's fresh water. In an August 20 speech in Ottawa, made at a Green Party "counter-summit" to the trilateral summit related to the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America in Montebello, Quebec, Pentland said, "Over the next decade or two, we will likely witness an epic struggle on the water export question."

Speaking to the Straight by phone immediately after the counter-summit, Pentland argued that unless people confront free-trade agreements now, it will be too late to stop bulk-water transfers. "We lost some of our ability to protect our waters in the FTA and NAFTA," he said. "If we lose a little bit more in the SPP, we're on a slippery slope."

Activists have raised concerns that the SPP jeopardizes Canada's sovereignty. A U.S. government Web site, www.spp.gov/, describes the SPP as a "trilateral initiative" that focuses on greater cooperation and information sharing. Pentland called the SPP "a move to deep continental integration".

The provincial Water Protection Act prohibits large-scale fresh-water-transfer projects and the removal of fresh water from B.C. in containers larger than 20 litres.

Wendy Holm, a Vancouver agrologist and critic of the SPP, has argued such legislation "has no effect". She told the Straight that with the FTA and NAFTA, the federal government has agreed to "take all steps necessary" to ensure provincial compliance with international trade agreements.

In a voice mail left at the Straight , B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner denied fresh water could be sold in bulk quantities. He claimed there was no reason to believe the federal government was acting to change that.

"I'm not quite sure just what discussions might be taking place at the federal level," Penner said. "B.C. has not been invited to participate. But we certainly haven't been notified either, that the sale of water is on the agenda."

Fred McMahon, director for the centre for trade and globalization studies at the Fraser Institute, questioned why there is so much reluctance to discuss the possibility of bulk water exports. "What's so evil about that?" he asked the Straight . "If millions were dying on the other side of the border, what are we going to do? Hoist the Canadian flag and say, 'Die you bastards'?"

Holm said that Canada would deliver water to a neighbour in need, but that doesn't mean that the federal government should allow the U.S. to "put their hand on the pump".