In search of water

🕔Jul 24, 2007

Most everyone knows about and now accepts global climate change. Many of us are anticipating a much different future and beginning to prepare for that.
One aspect of the altered future is the developing crisis around water, but that doesn’t concern us much in northern British Columbia. If anything, we joke about how we could use a little more warm and a little less wet—just give us more sun!
Just the same, the preoccupation elsewhere with water could also become ours, but for the entirely different reason that we could be offering refuge to those without it.
Though discussion of global warming has overtaken the water crisis, warming—at least for a while—we can live with. Water, however, is life and death, here and now. We have our prophets in the desert, such as Marq de Villiers with his Governor-General’s Award-winning book Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. World-renowned University of Alberta scientist David Schindler foresees a new dust bowl looming from the Rockies to the Great Lakes and Mississippi. And almost everyone has heard United Nations advisor Ismail Serageldin, who has warned that the next world war will be fought over water.
BC’s water status—whether our rivers and lakes or our glaciers and snowy peaks—is the envy of others around the world. They come to see the magnificence we have here, just as we travel to deserts to experience them. We wouldn’t want to live there, though, and neither do many of those who do. As new and expanding deserts capture more land, where will people go to escape?
A look at the planet’s continents shows what’s left that’s desirable: Siberia is still pretty virgin, if you ignore the industrially polluted rivers and aquifers. Maybe parts of Africa south of the Congo forest. Australia is a write-off; so is South America, if we’re to preserve the Amazon rain forest which, along with the Congo, is called the “lungs of the planet.” Europe is over-populated, as are America, India, China, and the south Asian islands, gardens though parts of each are.
On population, scientists flatly state that, were everyone to live as we do—and why shouldn’t they?—the planet could sustain no more than one to 1.5 billion of us. Or, to put it another way, to support current world population at Canadian living standards we would need the resources of another three to four earths.
Obviously, everybody can’t live like us. How, then, are all of us to live?
Two hundred years ago, the father of demography, Thomas Malthus, postulated that humans expand until they destroy their habitat, then die off until the habitat recovers to support them again. Less famously, he also believed that we should let people already in crisis die off so that we avoid an even greater one.
China’s one-child policy attempted to obey Malthus, but the booming Chinese now want to rescind it. Contemporary demographer Mike Davis, in his recent book Planet of Slums, describes what the Chinese might face, based on what others elsewhere already do. If apocalyptic films on climate change like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the drama The Day After Tomorrow are visionary, then “Planet Hollywood” is a preview of “Planet Slum.”
Back to Canada: given the various crises that the planet faces, no part of the world remains more safe or desirable. El Nino and global warming are south of us, and w e’re flooded more than scorched. But even within Canada, only the East and the West seem secure. Aside from pollution, the causes of the water crisis are shrinking glaciers and depletion of aquifers. Global warming causes the melt, and aquifer depletion results from extraction for domestic and industrial use and, especially, agricultural irrigation.
Cities that depend on glacial rivers for their water, such as Calgary, Edmonton, and Denver, know their problem: once the glaciers are gone, they’re out of water. The same is true for the aquifers. Though these massive underground “seas,” such as the Ogallala in the American mid-west, receive seepage, they were formed by ice-age melt. Once they’re gone, there’s no replacement—until the next ice age melts. As a result, the continental interior will decline with the glaciers and aquifers. And even if global warming, as predicted, brings a moister global climate, it may be from higher humidity rather than rain.
The crisis and how to cope with it have been anticipated for decades. In the 1960s, American engineer Ralph Parsons designed a continental canal system with its source in BC and the Yukon. In the 1970s, some wanted to dam James Bay and canal water to the Great Lakes, and then into the interior. Similar schemes for massive river “adjustment” exist internationally.
Recently, an American lobbyist, Lyndon LaRouche, resurrected these plans. This past April, a public-private group, the North American Future 2025 Project, held a closed-door meeting in Calgary to discuss plans for “transfers and diversions of bulk water.” The motives here are noble. People’s lives are at stake.
But what is at stake for BC? Even if water is canalled to the continental interior, it will not be enough. Desperate people will be seeking new places to live. We have a name for them: environmental refugees. They have existed since we’ve had weather. But this is different.
Let’s assume Parsons’ canal system gets built. After all, it’s almost inevitable: the Americans already need the water, and we rely on American-grown food for a good part of the year. It’s a quid pro quo of no summer water for America, no winter food for Canada. Massive damming of BC rivers, still well fed with rain if less so from glaciers, will provide reservoirs not only for water but to produce electricity—Alcan’s story is only the beginning of that.
Aside from abundant water, the interior of BC is ripe for agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts growth in farming in more northern latitudes, and the pine beetle kill-off has already prompted ranchers to ask that we give up forests for pastures. If refugees stream to the region, agriculture would expand as it did on the Prairies a century ago, when Canada became the breadbasket of the world.
How do we prepare for such an eventuality?
It has already begun. Local realtors are surprised over a new type of buyer here: those seeking the healthy environment no longer found elsewhere. If choice turns to necessity, voter-driven government policy may try to restrict refugee access, but the sheer numbers would overwhelm. Moreover, agricultural collapse east of the Rockies would necessitate new development. Although previous tenure—from Crown land to First Nations’ reserves and claims—would be severely tested, we can hope for goodwill to accommodate the refugees.
There is a philosophical and religious concept called “the duty to care.” It defines the humanitarian response to such a crisis. If others behave as responsibly as ourselves, we have a duty to aid them. As the model of this responsibility, the hope we can give will also help us preserve the BC we have come to know and love.