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Let's Talk Dirty about Water

Time to spout some Canadian sacrilege: H20 is a commodity -- and markets will help save it.

Chris Wood 17 May

Chris Wood, author of Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources and Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America, is a freelance writer living in Mexico. Wood is also editor for Tyee Solutions Society. On May 22, Wood will participate in The Walrus Talks Water panel in Vancouver. The event promises 80 minutes of provocative ideas on the impact, use and health of water in a global society. Find details here.

Round up the children and send them to their rooms to play something mindlessly destructive on their PlayStation screens. I am about to use language scandalous to the ears of the typical socially-conscious Canadian. I am about to use the M-word. Also the C-word.

We're talking here about water. The sine qua non of life. The sacramental symbol of every religion. The blue stuff spattered about the national map and identity. The pride and perennial hair-trigger of Canadian nationalism.

There is a psychological theory, backed by some evidence, that we are more averse to potential loss than we are attracted to potential gain. We'd rather forego a shot at a dollar's profit than risk a quarter's loss.

This may partly explain the character of so much of our conversation about water in this country. We imagine we have the world's largest holdings of fresh water (this is not as true as we think, but close enough). But rather than make us generous, or even thoughtful about our good fortune, our relative bounty has produced in us a defensive parsimony: not a drop of Canada's water shall ever leave our shores for any purpose!

Water has made us rich. From the days of the beaver trade borne on canoes to the tanker-loads of fine, pure water that we poison irrecoverably every day (the equivalent of four or five Exxon Valdezes) to produce synthetic crude oil from sandy tar, Canada's economy has run on H20.

But God and Maude Barlow have prevented us from having a real conversation about how to get the most from the commodity -- there, that C-word -- let alone about how markets -- oh no, the M -- might help us achieve that. It's time that changes.

We're losing it

Let's review some facts.

It is, first of all, not "Canada's" water at all. Water is mobile. It is always passing through. We are all of us both upstream and downstream of someone else who considers the water theirs, not ours. We are at best water's custodians.

And we are not especially good custodians either. If you consider the average condition of all of Canada's thousands of lakes and rivers, that condition is quite high. If you consider the health of the water we have anything to do with directly, not so much.

Lethal dead zones and poisonous algae blooms haunt two of our greatest lakes: Erie and Winnipeg. Persistent organic pollutants are concentrating in the waters, wetlands and wildlife downstream from Alberta's tarsands region. More than 200 pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals have been identified in the water of the Fraser River, which flows mostly through (relative) nature before it encounters the Vancouver urban region.

And while it is true that Canada gets an undeservedly generous portion of the world's naturally recycled fresh water (about six per cent of it), that statement is so general as to be worse than useless: it serves to rationalize a personal level of water consumption that's the highest in the world.

The reality is that two-thirds of the water Canada receives falls in the north and runs toward the Arctic Ocean. Down here in the south where nearly all of us live, we are actually getting less water, year-on-year.

Since the early 1970s, Statistics Canada reports, water "yield" (basically, what rains or snows, less what is evaporated back up into the sky) in southern Canada has been dropping by about 3.5 kilometres-cubed every year. The amount we're losing annually is roughly enough to provide water for every Canadian household (even at our spendthrift rates of use) for a year. Since 1971, we've lost about one-tenth of our annual water supply.

Lastly, water doesn't magically appear in the pipe. Water is a product of nature, specifically of large-scale landscapes and living ecosystems that wring moisture from the air, store it in soils, lakes, streams and aquifers, and metabolize biological pathogens and other toxins to restore contaminated water to useful health. These constitute the ecological infrastructure that puts the water in the pipes.

Vancouver, which can count on the natural infrastructure of three closed watersheds in its north shore mountains, has some of the best water of any major city on Earth as a result.

But that infrastructure is straining: toxic algae have begun to appear even in Vancouver's mountain reservoirs. Elsewhere in the province and country, vital ecological infrastructure is disappearing, repurposed to housing development, industrial farms and energy extraction.

We are, to use economists' terms, over-consuming our water and under-investing in the ecostructure that supplies it. Economics can explain those bad choices as well. Both water and nature are woefully, psychotically, under-priced.

We're giving it away

There is no economic return on simply allowing nature to do its thing, let alone on taking steps to ensure that it continues to do so. Unwilling to risk the taboo of joining the words 'water' and 'sale' in the same sentence, we give it away for free, or for laughably tiny sums.

In British Columbia, a typical household on a municipal water system pays a nickel a month to 'rent' all the water it can use. Gas fracking operators pay even less to 'rent' far larger volumes, even though much of that has to be treated later as toxic waste, and more is never recovered at all.

BC Hydro pays the biggest water rent bill in the province: north of $300 million a year. But instead of that money going to protect the future supply of the water that earned it, by managing the landscapes and ecosystems that produce it, the cash flows into general revenues. Government treats Hydro's water rent, in effect, as a golden-egg-laying magic goose, rather than as income from an asset that should be protected.

Fear of "commodification" has become a cudgel of magical thinking, used to bring a sudden stop to any effort to draw connections between water and the activities that go on in the M-word, the Marketplace. Yet that is where water gets used, wasted and ruined. And while our refusal to commodify water makes it invisible to the economy, the economy is not invisible to nature.

By facing up to the irreplaceable commodity value of water -- and that of the natural systems that produce it -- we make both of those visible to the economy. Only then can we expect the economy to stop trampling them, more or less literally, underfoot.

Recognizing our ecological infrastructure for its economic value and acknowledging water as an economic commodity doesn't mean we turn over every river and lake to private interests. Far from it (and anyway, we do that now, redefining entire lakes as mine tailing lagoons).

The commodification I have in mind is nothing more nor less than the explicit accounting for water and the ecosystems that provide it in the only language the economy reads: money.

A critical economic asset

British Columbia's new Water Act invites us to begin this discussion, by opening up the subject of water pricing for public and provincial review. The first principle in that review must be: "protect the source." The starting line for the future price of water must be set at the full cost of preserving the ecosystems that generate it.

The Polis Institute at the University of Victoria has identified other important principles the provincial review should bear in mind. Actual change is likely to advance at a dribbling pace: the new act replaces one that's over a century old, and has itself already been more than five years in the making.

But any start down the road is a step in the right direction to injecting two qualities largely missing from our environmental stewardship: accountability and realism. When we count things, and especially when money is on the line, we pay more attention; we're more likely to measure twice and make sure our sums are right.

The new act envisions new public agencies taking greater charge of B.C.'s watersheds. A bolder step would do more than merely enable these; it would establish them for every major watershed. It would go further, both requiring such agencies to maintain the water productivity and ecological integrity of the basins under their jurisdictions, and giving them authority to charge users the full cost of that maintenance plus reasonable other costs, such as to purchase insurance against damage from economic events like oil spills.

Treat our ecological infrastructure, in other words, like the critical economic asset that it is. Several goals would be served.

Simply determining what's required to preserve our watersheds' ecological productivity would add materially to our knowledge in many places. Establishing local public agencies with both the power and the revenue to secure that preservation would make it far more likely to happen than leaving it to provincial budget-makers more interested in diverting water 'rents' for other purposes.

Water users would face the discipline of the real-time costs of ensuring their future water security. This will give some regions a competitive economic edge and oblige others to invest more in their eco-structure. But both would have the confidence of knowing that fresh clean water would continue to flow.

A further advantage would become apparent if human activity -- again, think a leaky pipeline or derailed tanker truck -- damaged the health and integrity of ecosystems: a more precise knowledge of the cost of recovery, and an agency with a strong interest in pursuing the polluter to pay.

A recognition of the commodity values of nature and water would have additional benefits if we also allowed the marketplace to allocate more of the water that we withdraw from nature. The world market for water-related services is approaching a trillion dollars. Canadian business, with no incentive to use water better, has a microscopic share of these sales.

As the cost of securing our natural infrastructure rises against the inevitable pressures of climate change and other demands on the landscape, the price of water released for commercial use will also go up. Money on the line encourages both closer management and innovation. Competition to make the most from more expensive water would encourage industry to "reduce, recycle, reuse," as well as to reshuffle its water use for maximum benefit.

Yes, there are details; and yes, they harbour devils. But in a variety of ways, to various extents, all of this is already being done in countries as different as France, Mexico and Australia, without those societies becoming completely undone.

As long as we're afraid to speak the C- and M-words here in Canada, we'll continue to squander and degrade our water today, and exhaust the ecological infrastructure that secures its supply tomorrow.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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