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Holding Water

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In 1991, B.C. actually gave six Canadian companies licenses to export bulk shipments of water, but the province reversed the decision and imposed a lasting moratorium on bulk water exports. The province had to compensate the Canadian company in the joint venture, but has never compensated an American company involved in the deal – incidentally, Sun Belt Water of Santa Barbara, California, is suing the Canadian government for $14 billion under Chapter 11.

In February of 1999, the federal government announced a temporary moratorium on the sale of water until they can either ratify our free trade agreements or ban water exports.

The announcement came after one company in Newfoundland attempted to "harvest" over 50 billion litres of pristine lake water from Gisborne Lake in Labrador and ship it by tankers to the U.S. and Asia.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, whose province has benefited immensely from NAFTA in oil and energy exports, has also put his foot down on bulk water exports – if Albertans were forced to pay market price for water, irrigation farming throughout the province would become uneconomical. It’s hypocritical expecting a have-not province like Newfoundland not to sell a resource, while Alberta gets rich selling a resource that Newfoundland doesn’t have, but it’s that kind of issue, and people are frightened by the fallout.

The GVRD hosted a public forum on June 5 to debate the NAFTA threat to our drinking water posed by the privatization of the filtration plant at the Seymour Reservoir. According to lay expert Steven Shrybman, if the GVRD contracts with a foreign corporation, or a Canadian contractor is taken over by a foreign corporation, NAFTA obligations make it impossible to terminate the deal and return the plant to public control. Canadians could be put in a position where we are forced to buy our own water back from American companies.

"This proposed undertaking puts at risk the capacity of government to maintain the highest standards of water quality," says Shrybman. "Any effort by the GVRD to sever the investor relationship could leave taxpayers liable to the company for the loss of future profits – damages that would run well into the tens of millions of dollars."

The Society Promoting Environmental Conservation is just one of the environment groups that plans on voicing their opposition to the privatization plan.

The GVRD’s own lawyers insist that NAFTA won’t be a factor in water privatization.

But with the future of our water potentially up for grabs if an international water company can establish that water is being treated as a commodity in Canada, it pays to go slowly.

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