The coming water wars

The coming water wars McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 21, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 02
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The coming water wars

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Will the St. Lawrence River end up paying the price for Americans' thirst for water?

Canada will come under increasing pressure to sell water to the U.S., with potentially serious environmental consequences, said McGill experts at a recent Macdonald Campus conference titled "Water: Gift, Commodity or International Weapon."

Peter Brown, director of the McGill School of Environment, believes that advocates of selling water must prove that the consequences will be acceptable.

"The burden of proof has been shifted. Human use of a resource has to be supported by reasons, and the reasons offered cannot be concerned solely with human well being. Within a framework of reverence for life, we have obligations for the flourishing of other life forms."

Brown also contended that buyers must demonstrate a "record of wise use" of water, and a sound overall water policy.

"Life forms cannot be eradicated for minor increments in human satisfaction. Species cannot legitimately be traded for fountains in desert golf courses."

In a subsequent interview, Brown explained why water sales on a large scale could have serious consequences.

"There are lots of ways in which changing either ground water or surface water will affect the ability of species to flourish or even survive, but if we started to sell huge quantities, in some cases it could mean that certain species, like the salamander, could not reproduce. If we dry up the springs they use to breed in, it could mean that species won't make it in that body of water."

Brown notes that sales of water to the States are negligible now, but an increasing number of droughts and climate change from global warming may result in more arid conditions in the central U.S. In addition, the U.S. population is expected to swell by at least 50 percent in the next few decades, thus expanding their water needs.

Furthermore, many of our neighbour's agricultural practices are unsustainable, particularly in the northern Midwest, where groundwater is being pumped out to irrigate crops.

"They have substituted rain- fed agriculture along the Atlantic coast -- because good farmland is being covered up by urban sprawl -- for an unsustainable irrigation-based agriculture in the Midwest. When the aquifer runs dry, which it absolutely will, what will they do? It seems likely that they will start looking to Canada, and say 'You have all this water, and you're not using it.'

"My answer would be that we are using it. Because humans are not the only ones who matter."

Brown is concerned that the offer of U.S. greenbacks may sweep aside such objections.

"It was important that we have the symposium now, because it is important to think about how to respond to pressure, once it starts. We're not under a lot of pressure now, but once hundreds of millions of dollars are put on the table, that will change, and the government may want to do things which are not necessarily sound.

"I think politicians will care about the environmental concerns if people show that they care."

Biology professor Joseph Rasmussen has a slightly different take on the problem. He sees Brown's scenario as optimistic, given U.S. history and the opportunities presented by the interconnectedness of the Great Lakes.

"In the 1960s, the midwestern states switched from grain to corn, a high water-demanding crop. So there is already pressure from U.S. agriculture, which wants to use more and more water from the Great Lakes. If the aquifer dries up, at the rate at which their agricultural production is escalating, they could very well need water equivalent to 10-20 percent of the water flow in the St. Lawrence."

Rasmussen fears that the U.S. may want to "hijack" water from the Great Lakes, rather than purchasing it, as in Brown's view.

"The Colorado River was hijacked, diverted into California to keep that state going. I don't know why Mexico doesn't scream about it more, since the Colorado River ends up with almost no water in it when it crosses the border into the Sea of Cortez. I think that we're going to face the same problem, in the next 50 years. "

Rasmussen says that the U.S. could simply leach water out of Lake Michigan, which they own, consequently forcing water out of the Great Lakes on the Canadian side of the border.

"Selling water might be the most optimistic scenario. If they take water out of Lake Michigan, they don't have to buy it from us. Taking it from Lake Michigan affects the discharge in the entire Great Lakes system; if it's coming out of the upper end, it's not coming out of our end."

A drop in water levels in the Great Lakes would affect Quebec most directly through the St Lawrence River.

"The discharge through the St. Lawrence River would drop, so that our fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence could collapse."

In addition, because the U.S. owns Lake Michigan outright, "we can only negotiate water practices on Lake Michigan through the International Joint Commission and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a trans-border political body which has no power. I'm not optimistic that they can address this issue, if the U.S. takes a hard line and insists on growing high water-demanding crops in what is essentially a desert."

This could lead to a "pumping war," in which both sides pump water aggressively to prevent the other side from taking more than their share.

"This is a common practice in dry areas of the world. In areas where people live on ground water, they have to negotiate a cooperative plan to prevent a pumping war."

Another possibility is that Canada proactively offers Great Lakes water for sale, to offset the possibility of a hijacking.

"If they can take it anyway, we may feel forced to sell it, so that we at least get U.S. dollars in the bargain."

The conference was organized by the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management and co-sponsored by the McGill School of Environment.

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