Keeping our heads above water, at home and abroad

Jean Chretien


Published Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2011 in The Globe and Mail

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, killing thousands and provoking a nuclear reactor crisis, demonstrate the sheer power of nature. But if floods and tsunamis stoke our fears, we know, too, that water is the staff of life – we cannot live without it.

Yet, far too many people in the world suffer from lack of access to clean, safe water. More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while more than two billion lack access to adequate sanitation. By 2025, three billion people will live in regions that suffer from severe water stress.

The consequences of inadequate water – either in quality or quantity – are extensive and debilitating. A lack of accessible and affordable clean water contributes to malnutrition and disease, impedes efforts to achieve gender equality (because women are disproportionately responsible for securing water) and undermines economic development. Excessive human use also deprives the natural world of the water it requires to survive.

Such scarcity threatens peace. In the water-scarce and politically volatile Middle East, countries are using water faster than it can be replenished. Some experts warn that future wars may be fought over water. Others argue that history proves co-operation in water management is more likely than conflict.

The world’s daunting water problems are well known. So what can we do, and what role can Canada play?

Canada is blessed with large internal renewable water resources, third in the world at 6.5 per cent of world supplies. Convinced we have water in abundance, we are second only to the Americans as the greatest per capita users of water in the world. Increasingly, however, Canadian regions are suffering from significant water shortages.

According to Statistics Canada, from 1971 to 2004, the water yield for the Prairies fell by 0.56 cubic kilometres a year. The 2001-02 Prairie droughts cost $3-billion, making it one of Canada’s largest natural disasters. Trends in Southern Canada, where 98 per cent of the population lives, are also not good: There has been an overall loss of 8.5 per cent of water yield in Southern Canada from 1971 to 2004.

To protect Canadian supplies, in 1999, my government announced a strategy to prohibit the bulk removal of water from Canadian watersheds both within Canada and for export. We proposed to the provinces a Canada-wide accord on bulk water removal, we initiated a Canada-U.S. reference to the International Joint Commission to study the effects of water consumption and diversion from the Great Lakes and, in 2002, we amended the International Boundary Water Treaty Act to prohibit exports of “boundary” waters, including, in particular, the Great Lakes.

The International Joint Commission found that, “although the Great Lakes contain about 20 per cent of the fresh water on the Earth’s surface, only 1 per cent of this water is renewed each year. The commission concluded that removals of water from the basin reduce the resilience of the system and its capacity to cope with unpredictable stresses, such as climate change.”

Established in 1909 as part of the Boundary Waters Treaty, the IJC has six commissioners, three from Canada and three from the U.S. These commissioners are obliged to pursue the common interest of each nation, rather than to pursue a nationalist perspective. For that reason, Canada must appoint commissioners of the highest calibre. In 2002, for example, I appointed Herb Gray, former deputy prime minister, as Canadian chair to give the commission the heft and profile it deserves.

The IJC, so useful to Canada, could also serve as model in areas where water conflict looms, such as between Egypt and Sudan, Israel and Jordan, or India and Pakistan.

To solve global water problems, we also need advanced technologies for water filtration, wastewater treatment and conservation. It is estimated that the revenues of the world’s water-related businesses could rise to nearly $1-trillion by 2020. Canada should take the lead in developing such technologies, then promoting them on Team Canada trade missions. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Water Opportunities Act, for example, is a good step in that direction.

Water is vital to the health and well-being of both humans and ecosystems. Although most Canadians enjoy water security, we must turn our minds to those who are less fortunate. In today’s interconnected world, increasing the security of other people also increases the security of Canadians.

Jean Chrétien was Canada’s 20th prime minister. As co-chair of the InterAction Council of Former Heads of State and Government, he is in Toronto on Wednesday wrapping up a high-level expert group meeting organized by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation on the global water crisis.