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Pique n' Your Interest

Good to the last drop


Setting aside the dozens of "boil water" advisories that have hit B.C. communities over the past few years, few regions on the planet can rival the purity of British Columbia’s drinking water. It’s just as well because the human body is between 55 and 75 per cent water, and we are what we eat.

Because drinkable water has long been considered a fundamental right, its distribution generally falls under the aegis of public works.

Even the cost of water is generally tied to the cost of building and maintaining the water infrastructure, from potable water treatment to sewerage. The implication is that nobody actually owns the water.

All that could change if the Greater Vancouver Regional District proceeds with its plan to contract out the design, construction and operation of the filtration plant proposed for the Seymour Watershed, the source of 40 per cent of the GVRD’s water supply.

In an effort to streamline costs, provincial governments across the country are in the process of deregulating Crown ownership of critical utilities on the basis that private corporations are generally more cost-effective and efficient in running operations. They also have deeper pockets, and can easily absorb huge capital costs for new facilities and upgrades that would break the public bank.

The proliferation of small, privately owned power companies around the country is just one example of public works going private.

Water, however, is different. Canada and the U.S. have always swapped power in the event of a surplus or a shortfall, and the parameters for trade have already been set. Power is officially a commodity, and if power-poor California ever pays up, B.C.’s hydroelectric industry stands to become one of the top economic forces in the province.

Water is currently not considered to be a commodity, and there is widespread belief in this country that it should never become one. There are at least three provisions in the North America Free Trade Agreement and one provision in the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas that make this a dangerous proposition.

Canada is sitting on 20 per cent of the world’s remaining fresh water, about nine per cent of which is renewable on an annual basis. Meanwhile, our neighbours to the south have dammed almost every major tributary in the country and are still coming up short in some areas.

They would love to be able to purchase our water, and we would love to sell it to them for a profit – the moment we do, however, water officially becomes a commodity.

Generally speaking, once water becomes a commodity under NAFTA and the FTAA, every last drop of it is officially for sale. Any attempt to protect a lake or river for environmental or social reasons would leave us open to law-suits – multinational companies could actually sue our governments for the profits they would have made if our water had been for sale.

Even worse, Canadians could be put in a position where we will be forced to buy our own water back from multinationals while they sell what they want to whomever they want.

It isn’t certain whether a privately owned water filtration plant in the Seymour will brand water as a commodity, or in any way hand over control of the region’s drinking water to a multinational corporation – by the way, all four of the companies short-listed in the bidding process are multinationals.

Lawyers for the GVRD say no, while lawyer for the Sierra Club of B.C. and the Green Party say yes. Until we know the answer for certain, I think the GVRD would be wise to put the entire project on hold – we can’t afford to set a precedent that would result in Canada’s water being bought up by international corporations.

Wisely, the GVRD has opened the issue up to public consultation, and the response so far has been overwhelmingly negative, and justifiably so. Previous experiments in the privatization of water have been disastrous.

When municipal water services were privatized in areas of the U.S., water prices doubled and sometimes tripled – remember, corporations operate for profit, not out of a sense of civic duty. Quality standards have also dropped (one of President Clinton’s last official acts was to allow a significant increase in the safe allowable content of arsenic in drinking water) as companies work to cut costs. Customers who couldn’t pay their bills were also cut off.

In 1999, the Bechtel Group – one of the companies shortlisted to operate the Seymour filtration plant – assumed control over water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with the help of the World Bank. The company immediately doubled its rates.

The outraged public organized a general strike that brought the city to its knees. The Bolivian government, overwhelmed by the situation, was forced to nullify Bechtel’s contract.

The last thing Canadians need right now is for the price of water to go up, and the last thing the GVRD needs is for it to be their fault.

No matter what they say, more corporatization is not the answer to our problems.

— Andrew Mitchell