Author Tags: Geography

Karen Bakker is a professor of geography at UBC.


An Uncooperative Commodity: Privatizing Water in England and Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Eau Canada: The Future of Canada's Water (UBC Press, 2006)

[UBC 2006]

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Water Without Borders? Canada, the United States, and Shared Waters/a>

Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water (UBC Press $29.95)

Eco-guru David Suzuki refuses bottled water at his many speaking engagements, requesting tap water instead. In a recent CBC interview he cited the waste and pollution associated with plastic containers, but he also noted the defeatism implicit in Canadians’ embrace of packaged water.

“I think that we’ve got to drink the water that comes out of our taps, and if we don’t trust it, we ought to be raising hell about that,” he said. A couple of dozen academics and activists do just that, in their eggheady way, in Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water (UBC Press $29.95), a collection of 17 essays (and one photo essay) edited by University of B.C. geography professor Karen Bakker. It isn’t light reading, more textbook than polemic, but Eau Canada is a handbook for every citizen worried about the safety and security of a substance on which literally every life depends. It should be required reading for legislators at every level, from rural councils balancing the needs of development and agriculture to federal ministers and bureaucrats dickering with the U.S. over free trade.

You might think you know at least the fundamentals of water politics, but the authors torpedo many cherished myths on the subject. Most of us learned as children that we were the stewards of the world’s largest supply of fresh water, and as we grew up many of us came to believe the greatest threat to that supply is the covetous United States. And despite our addiction to bottled water, the deaths in Walkerton, Ont. and boil-water advisories spreading like pine beetles, Canadians still cling to the notion that our water supply is basically safe.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, say the authors of Eau Canada. In “Great Wet North? Canada’s Myth of Water Abundance,” John Sprague, a former fisheries researcher working as a consultant from his Salt Spring Island home, points out that while Canada may have 20 per cent of the planet’s lake water, it has only 6.5 per cent of its renewable water — the stuff that falls from the sky, follows its path through rivers, lakes and aquifers to the sea, and evaporates to start the cycle again.

As for the thirsty giant to the south, it may surprise you to know that agricultural demand for water in the U.S. Southwest has been stagnating for two decades. In his fact-packed chapter on water diversion Laval University’s Frédéric Lasserre attributes this to such factors as the high cost of large-scale diversion projects, the rising popularity of desalinization, the flight of agribusiness from the U.S. in the face of foreign competition and urban demand that makes it more profitable for farm owners to sell their water rights to cities than to irrigate low-value crops.

It turns out most of the water diversion on the continent is done by Canadians — six times more by volume than the Americans. Our own beaverish obsession with damming and diverting “makes our resistance to water exports less defensible,” Lasserre warns.

We may be good at rerouting water, but we’re lousy at monitoring and maintaining its quality. Researchers at Simon Fraser University ranked Canada 26th out of 28 of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of water stewardship. And within the nation, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund’s most recent provincial rankings placed B.C. near the bottom, thanks in part to the high incidence of boil water advisories in its small communities.

Eau Canada’s authors are depressingly thorough at spelling out the haphazard patchwork of water governance in Canada, the looming conflicts among different user groups and the tragic effects of neglect, especially on First Nations reserves.

The fear of Yankee guzzling seems to be part of our collective psyche, and the authors of Eau Canada are not immune to this phobia. Several suggest it would only take one province to authorize bulk exports of water to make every drop in the nation a tradable “good” under NAFTA, giving Americans the right to buy and sell it. This phobia sometimes trumps reason, as it does in the overwrought “Half-Empty or Half-Full? Water Politics and the Canadian National Imaginary” [sic] by Andrew Biro, an assistant professor of political science at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. Struggling to define the significance of water in Canadian culture, Biro presses the usual buttons (Susanna Moodie, the Group of Seven, Ian and Sylvia) to illustrate our traditional nature-based nationalism, then contrasts that with the ironic, apolitical mindset of Today’s Youth, as evidenced by a song by satirical group The Arrogant Worms and — wait for it — the “I am Canadian” guy from the Molson’s ads.

Biro refers to Lasserre’s essay, but seems to have missed the part about all diverted Canadian water staying north of the 49th parallel. After pointing to China and Spain as nations that employ massive water diversions as a show of national strength and pride, he writes: But, in Canada, such a massive system of hydraulic transfers can be (and indeed has been) imagined only for the purpose of diverting Canada’s water resources south to the United States. Here, a transformation of the national waterscape would serve to indicate not Canadian national strength but, rather, its subservience to American interests, or the relative weakness of the Canadian nation state. [Boldface added.]

Yes, every so often some hydrological Barnum imagines a scheme to sell water to the U.S. But every proposal for a southbound canal or pipeline has been vaporized by a double whammy of public fury and mind-boggling expense that no politician, no matter how lavishly bribed, would dare to confront.

Even Lasserre yields to this fear, insisting that the support of Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa for a 1985 scheme to dike James Bay and steer its watershed south via the Great Lakes shows that “to date” politicians are undaunted by the scale of continental water diversion — even though, to date, the GRAND Canal has been dead for more than 20 years and Bourassa for more than 10.
If some contributors fear that Americans will regard water as a commodity, at least one thinks Canadians should do so. In a crisply written chapter asking “Are the Prices Right?” Brock University economics professor Steven Renzetti offers the book’s most sweeping and practical conservation measure: Charge consumers a price that reflects water’s value, and jack it up in the summer when use is heaviest. That’s certainly one way to test Canadians’ vaunted love for their aqua pura.

Editor Bakker calls on Canada to follow the European Union example of basing water governance on “integrated watershed management” (something provinces could do) and wonders if it should also follow South Africa and Uruguay in granting its citizens a constitutional right to clean water.

Stuffed to its post-graduate gills with facts, footnotes and those awful interrogative main titles (“On Guard for Thee?” “Out of Sight, Out of Mind?” “Commons or Commodity?”), Eau Canada is a much-needed wake-up call to complacent Canadians, even though it will never grace the bestseller rack at the drug store or even the next round of “Canada Reads” on CBC radio. And after all, who needs to know this stuff apart from legislators, policy wonks and anyone who drinks water? 978-0-7748-1340-2

-- review by Shane McCune, a freelance writer in Pender Harbour who recently appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy.

[BCBW 2007] "Water"