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Terence Corcoran: Making Water The New Oil

Environmentalists aim to demonize water trade and consumption

Through the summer, thousands streamed into the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto to take in a couple of blockbuster shows. The biggest draw was Water: The Exhibition, which drew more than 150,000 visitors. It closed on Labour Day, a couple of weeks after a companion exhibit of industrial photography — titled Edward Burtynsky: Oil — also closed. Needless to say, the two didn’t mix well — unless, of course, you’re in the modern museum business of catering to the prevailing ideological themes of the day, in which case the two exhibits were perfectly in tune.

Human consumption of oil has already been successfully demonized and politicized. Visitors didn’t need Mr. Burtynsky’s beautiful pictures of extraction sites, oil spills and refineries to learn that oil has an impact on the environment. Along with other carbon-based energy sources, oil generates pollution, releases carbon and provides energy that is wasted on a mass scale. We all know about our carbon footprints and the energy content of products and services.

Human consumption of water isn’t yet fully demonized and politicized, but Water: The Exhibition — mounted in association with the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions — clearly aims to nudge water onto the political map. With graphics, voiceovers, videos, morally loaded language, eerie music and a few live animals, the water exhibit builds its message: Water is a limited resource that is threatened and wasted around the world, and it is time we all did something about it.

Exactly what we should do isn’t always clear, although there is no mistaking the main objectives. We should reduce our consumption of water, reduce trade in water, stop movement in water, and wherever possible stop using water. We should, for example, “only plant crops within the limits of nearby water supply.” There goes California’s ag industry and Israel’s green revolution.

Using China’s Three Gorges political megaproject disaster to make the point, the exhibit portrays hydro power dams as disruptive of human, plant and animal life. “Instead of building large hydro power dams we could instead develop other power sources such as wind, solar and tidal power.”

Green answers to energy problems emerge as a sub-theme of Water: The Exhibition. Polar bears are hauled out for a cameo. “To help protect polar bears and other Arctic species, [you should] find ways to use less electricity and gasoline, and urge your government officials — from the local to the federal level — to help fight climate change.” Needless to say, commercially bottled water is taboo.

Water: The Exhibition is a soft-core family version of a much larger, more complicated and darker political effort to turn water into a global political issue. Water itself, essential to life, cannot be demonized in the same way oil has been. But human consumption of water — how it’s used, paid for and distributed — is easily described in terms that can turn water into the new oil.

The ROM’s kid-friendly exhibit was accompanied by a series of lectures and symposiums on water that had much harder edges and objectives. Last February, the first of a series of panel discussions tackled the subject of water exports. The panel was loaded against the idea right from the false-alternative title: Water Exports: Imminent Threat or Convenient Distraction?

Arguing the no-win case in favour of exports was Marcel Boyer, senior economist at the Montreal Economic Institute. He was drowned out by Adele Hurley, director of the program on water issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She said Canadians were “hugely wasteful” of water resources and have been ignoring the damage caused by hydro power dams. Ralph Pentland, a veteran water-policy player and acting head of the Canadian Water Issues Council, summarized his position on water usage and exports when he said: “Water is most valuable where God placed it.”

Maude Barlow, Canada’s leading water activist, headlined another panel a few weeks later. As head of the Council of Canadians, and Canada’s leading water activist, Ms. Barlow argued in favour of a United Nations move to create an international right to water — a plan Queen’s University professor Bruce Pardy said would set a dangerous precedent. Ms. Barlow argued against turning water into a corporate commodity, subject to market prices. Prof. Pardy defended pricing and markets. As Prof. Pardy argues in an accompanying commentary, the UN water rights resolution offers no solution to any water issue.

Beyond the ROM exhibit and panels, Ms. Barlow and others have been busy agitating for the much more aggressive water policies and concepts that are the real objectives of activists. In June, the Canadian Water Summit in Toronto — organized in part by Ottawa’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada — introduced Canadians to the Water Disclosure Project.

The Water Disclosure Project is the brainchild of the operators of the Carbon Disclosure Project, a British organization that rattles around the world getting corporations to publicly disclose their carbon emissions and therefore their guilt in causing global warming. The supposed reason for disclosure is that corporations and their investors will have a better idea of the “risks” in corporate carbon emissions and to ”motivate investors, corporations and governments to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.”

Water disclosure will do the same for water, lining up corporations for public flogging over water use and collecting data to begin the process of controlling economic activity based on water use. Water is the new carbon, something that corporations should be measuring, reporting and ultimately regulating.

Where this leads is perfectly clear to Ms. Barlow, who released a report claiming that water is leaking out of Canada and from countries around the world in unmeasured quantities. Leaky Exports: A Portrait of the Virtual Water Trade in Canada claimed that products from all over the world contained uncounted volumes of “virtual water.” A sheet of paper, it said, contains 10 litres of “virtual water content.”

Given the state of the world economy today, it’s unlikely any plan to make water the new carbon will take off any time soon. The potential for trade disruptions based on virtual water content of millions of products is simply too economically dangerous to contemplate. But the demonization of water consumption has begun.

Financial Post, 6 September 2011