Canada a major exporter of virtual water, says new Council of Canadians report

Media Release
May 25, 2011

Ottawa - The Council of Canadians is releasing a new report today called Leaky Exports: A portrait of the virtual water trade in Canada. This report highlights the daily loss of massive amounts of the country’s fresh water used to produce commodities, minerals and energy for export. Virtual, or embedded, water is the sum of water used in the production of a good or service. Virtual water trade refers to the embedded water transferred across borders when these goods and services are internationally traded.

One of several major findings in the report is that Canada is the second net virtual water exporter in the world. Canada’s net annual virtual water exports (exports minus imports) amount to just under 60 Bm3 (billion cubic metres), which is enough to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto 37,500 times.

“Because Canada has more abundant water supplies than some other countries, successive provincial and federal governments have built their economies on the ‘myth of abundance’ and the assumption that these supplies are unlimited,” says Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow, one of the authors of the report. “Most of our provincial and federal governments depend to this day on exports that may endanger Canada’s fresh water legacy.”

The virtual water trade is now coming under close scrutiny as some impoverished and water-poor countries are depleting their water supplies in order to maintain export markets, while other, more wealthy countries import most of their “water footprint” (the total volume of water needed to produce the goods and services for their citizens) in order to protect their own limited water resources.

“While Canada is often touted as having 20 per cent of the world’s water supplies, in fact it has 6.5 per cent of the world’s renewable water,” cautions Barlow. “Many parts of Canada are facing some form of water crisis and nowhere is our groundwater properly mapped. Yet the practice of allowing almost unlimited access to our rivers, lakes and aquifers for commodity, energy and mineral production and export continues without public debate or oversight.”

Other major findings in the report include:

  • The increase in virtual water exports to the U.S. is closely related to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, due to the post–trade agreements’ increase in water-intensive exports to the U.S. and the integration of key parts of the North American agriculture and energy sectors.
  • Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of Canada’s fresh water.

“It is our hope that the findings of this report will spark the debate and research so long overdue in Canada,” adds Barlow.

The report is available here.

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