Bottled Great Lakes Water: Will That Be Flat or Sparkling?
|Carlos Osorios, Toronto Star|
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is on the verge of passage in the U.S. Last week, it whizzed through House and Senate committees and is expected to pass the full Congress in the fall. It was praised publicly by President George W. Bush. All this has happened in record time in the two weeks since I wrote about the few lonely voices opposing this bill on both sides of the border. While they raise the alarm, the big victory of the bill's proponents is that they have brought most environmentalists on side because it's been sold as a way to stop bulk exports and water diversion.
That it does. Or does it? The devil, so to speak, is in the details. The huge problem at the core of this bill is that it officially turns Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin water into a "product," and that is a weighted word in international trade circles. (Ontario and Quebec signed on with the eight U.S. Great Lakes states in a separate agreement that mirrors the U.S. bill.) Slipping a poison pill into a bill or treaty is an old negotiating tactic. Opponents, including powerful American environmental groups, had been fighting this compact for several years and were so relieved to get an exemption for bulk water exports, they heralded it as a victory. With that as a guarantee, what could go wrong? It was only those few free trade watchdogs, primarily the Council of Canadians, who understood what happens in freetradeland because they monitor trade issues, and have been since the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1989. As well, Michigan lawyer James Olson fought the bill based on the constitutional argument of water as a public trust.
Commodities/products can be traded freely and, since there is no special protection for water in NAFTA, opponents fear corporate interests — bottling companies, for instance — will attempt to use Great Lakes water for profit and fight any naysayers on the basis of free trade law. Probably, they have a good case; that's the scary part. It's important to note the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement did not protect water. Neither did the FTA or anything signed through GATT or the World Trade Organization.
NDP MP Peggy Nash (Parkdale-High Park), her party's water critic, argues "treating water as a product undermines what ought to be held as a public trust." Although Nash says, "I don't know if the U.S. is particularly interested in the opinions of Canadians," it's important for people who oppose water-as-product to make their views known to the U.S. Congress. It's not too late to lobby, she says. "The Americans have got to get this one right." It will be too late once that first court ruling (in either Canada or the U.S.) allows the export of bottled water from the Great Lakes because, to do otherwise, would supposedly harm free trade among nations.
It's also worth noting that free-trade rationale was probably what the Conservatives had in mind when the Canadian delegation derailed a recent resolution of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to make water a basic human right. Why do that when you can sell it? For those who argue Canada should be allowed to sell its water and benefit from the sale, be warned, once commercial interests are involved, the coming drought may be playing in a theatre near you.