The Americans who covet our precious bodily fluids

A rill in the RockiesUnfortunately behind the Released from behind the Citizen‘s pay wall this morning is a short story on a Council of Canadians event decrying so-called deep integration with the United States. One of the speakers was Steven Shrybman, a lawyer who often works for the group on its current hot issue, protecting Canadian water from thirsty Americans:

“Water needs to be regarded as a fundamental human right and not as a commodity,” said international trade lawyer Steven Shrybman. “That is critically important. We need to strengthen sovereignty and negotiate an agreement with the United States that makes it very clear that we will determine when and where Canadian water resources will be used. And that agreement needs to trump any right of any claimant in a trade agreement to assert a claim on Canadian water.”

Mr. Shrybman was speaking at Integrate This, a packed weekend conference organized by the Council of Canadians, a left-leaning advocacy group, to challenge terms of the Security and Prosperity Partnership between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Opponents of the partnership say its proposed increased economic integration of the three countries is a threat to Canada and Canadians in numerous areas.

He goes on to say that the U.S. is doing some truly absurd things with water — such as moving millions of people cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, where they grow lawns and play golf as if they weren’t living in the middle of the damn desert. He’s absolutely right that subsidizing those cities with Canadian water is wrong. But the reason why it’s wrong points out the problem with Shrybman’s solution.

If access to clean water is a fundamental human right, then presumably that rights exists independent of place or economic condition. Shrybman indicates that he thinks so a little later in the story, noting the abysmal water quality on many native reserves and in some remote non-native communities. The good people at, a group fighting on Shrybman’s side, have a map showing the locations of boil-water advisories in recent years, indicating that they’re more common than you might think if you live in a big city with a reliable supply.

Remote (and even not-so-remote) communities are faced with contaminated water precisely because they’re built in places where clean, fresh water doesn’t readily come out of the ground. But people have chosen to live there, and their lack of consistently potable water is, by Shrybman’s argument, an unmet human right.

And so why would their rights be any different from the rights of people in Phoenix? How dare we in water-rich Canada not send the people of Las Vegas enough water to honour their right to the stuff? If you don’t have sympathy for them, what of the people of Saharan Africa — if they have a basic human right to water, and we have water, why aren’t we loading up the bulk carriers even now? And why, as a matter of principle, are people in Libya and Niger any different from people who happen to live in the American desert? Or their thirsty children?

This line of argument shows the trouble with thinking of any physical good — which is what water finally is — as a human right that other people have a positive obligation to provide.

But while I don’t agree with Shrybman’s reasoning, I do agree with his conclusion. Water, at least surface water, in rivers and lakes, is a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean it’s infinite. You can only divert so much water from a river on an ongoing basis before you don’t have a river anymore, and by and large, diverters either don’t have to pay for the right to divert water or only cough up a token amount. They get to treat rivers as inputs the way we’ve all treated the air as a dumping ground since forever, and we know how that’s turning out.

In Ontario, for instance, a company wanting to appropriate part of the flow of a river for its own use has to get a permit from the government. Sometimes that permit includes conditions, such as monitoring the state of the river in various ways, taking less when the river is running low, or funding conservation programs. Sometimes, to get local groups’ support, would-be water-diverters pay for community projects or build public infrastructure. But ultimately, the system sees water as a public resource to be exploited as much as possible without obviously wrecking anything — and crucially, diverters’ sacrifices for access to the resource come up-front, rather than through some by-the-litre charge. So once they’ve got their permit, there’s little reason to conserve or to scale back.

On the flip side, municipal water services work the same way: if you pay a separate water charge at all, it’s a flat rate by the cubic metre, with no luxury tax for watering your enormous lawn at midday or filling a swimming pool. We’ve seen how well a system like that works for electricity utilities. It’s probably not practical — and certainly not politically feasible — to privatize major water resources, if for no other reason than that no private entity would be able to come up with the staggering amount of money buying them should cost. But we could do the next best thing.

Simply, anyone who wants to take water out of a river needs to pay by the litre, perhaps into funds run by each province. As diversion goes up, so does the price, probably quite sharply. Municipalities might get a break for their drinking-water systems, but they’d also have a reason to charge on a sliding scale to punish wastefulness. Consumers would have a direct incentive to use rain barrels for their gardens and “grey water” in their toilets.

Use the money to pay for efficiency measures, improved waste-treatment facilities so the stuff going back into the rivers is cleaner for downstream use, and research into technologies to, for instance, suck water vapour out of the air.

Above all, it wouldn’t make economic sense to ship water to Phoenix unless residents there were willing to pay through the nose. And if they did, the benefits would accrue not to a company that had managed to get a water-taking permit, but to the people who own the resource in common.


One response to “The Americans who covet our precious bodily fluids

  1. I dont get it, why are Canadians ignoring one of the biggest issues facing us? are we to tell our children we sold the water they drink? we are a compassionate people, send troops to far away places, pay for villages to be rebuilt, sponsor kids into schools from other countries, lend money to an amazing number of countries and leave our own on reservations with no clean water, people in large cities that cant get a glass of water for free, destroy all the water in alberta in the hunt for oil, have boil water advisories in no less than 750 cities communities in canada, drought in at least two provinces and its all good. As a nation we should really have a look at how this all plays. Maybe tell the kids how much we care, before their thirsty.

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