Examining Global Water Scarcity: Why Canada Cannot Export Its Water
Editor’s Note: This is the 10th installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world that Stratfor will be building upon periodically.
Despite being “water rich,” Canada will experience increasing regional water stress as demographics and climate variability threaten the natural resources in the country’s prairie. Suggestions about the possibility of Canada exporting water will emerge sporadically, as they have in the past. But such plans are highly unlikely to come to fruition, both because public opinion opposes the commoditization of water and because the exporting water would not be profitable. While Canada will continue to protect its freshwater resources, it will not turn them into a traded commodity.
Canada’s wealth of resources and comparatively small population allow the government to capitalize on the export of a number of goods, including oil, natural gas, fertilizer and wheat. But although Canada holds roughly 7 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources and less than 1 percent of the total global population, water is not poised to become another exported commodity — even as other areas of the world continue coping with water stress and water scarcity.
Canadian citizens generally view access to water as a basic human right and oppose attempts to sell it for profit. In addition, logistical difficulties and economic infeasibility — not only in Canada, but globally — ensure that bulk transfers of water across long distances will remain rare.
Canada’s Deceptive Abundance
The amount of renewable fresh water available to each Canadian citizen is more than 80,000 cubic meters per year. Even other countries that are not typically considered water stressed have far less water available per citizen. For example, the United Kingdom’s annual per capita water availability is just over 2,300 cubic meters per year, and the United States has just over 9,500 cubic meters per person.
However, Canada’s surfeit of water is greater on paper than it is in reality. The country’s water prices are among the lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, encouraging overuse of the resources. Moreover, as in the United States, Canada’s water is not equally distributed. The majority of Canada’s population lives in the southern part of the country, but 60 percent of the country’s renewable water drains to the north, so access to water resources is limited. In fact, some areas of Canada are already experiencing some degree of water stress.
The prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are typically more arid than other parts of the country. An expansion of agricultural and industrial activity in the region, along with population increases in recent decades, has led to greater water stress in parts of these provinces, and the pressure is expected to increase in coming decades. Agricultural and extractive industrial activity can be expected to continue in the region even as existing resources dwindle. Glaciers that feed the headwaters of many of the major rivers in the region have shrunk by roughly 25 percent in the past 100 years. Increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts are predicted, likely further increasing the strain on the water supply.