Whose water is it, anyway? (Part 1)

We have exploited our freshwater supply in the name of industrial and resource development for more than a century, but are we moving toward relinquishing control over *how* and *why* we use our most valuable resource? Part 1 of ‘Whose water is it, anyway?’

Without clean water, nothing else matters

By Justin Brake

It’s more valuable than gold, silver, oil, coal and natural gas combined. Without it we cannot survive, nor can the plants and animals we eat. We educate our children about its importance, about how they are made up of it, that it freezes, melts, collects, runs, evaporates, condenses and falls from the sky in a majestic dance that is happening all around us all the time.

It predates our existence by billions of years and will outlive us. We can cherish it or neglect it, use only what we need or take it for granted, share it or hoard it, keep it clean or poison it. We’ve known this since time immemorial, yet many of us somehow forget that we’re a part of that dance, the one that water always leads.

To the earlier inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador and their forebears, including the Innu, Inuit, Mi’kmaq and Beothuk, water was (and for some still is) sacred, even spiritual. Many aboriginal and non-aboriginal people still regard it as the life support system it is and, in turn, act to preserve and protect it as a mother would her children.

It’s an absurd thought that, given what we know about water – not only that we are water in the most scientifically profound way and that so many of us have a deep spiritual connection to it, but also that we simply need a clean, renewable source of it every day to be alive – we would ever jeopardize its quality or our access to it.

World Water Day

Haiti is becoming increasingly prone to flooding as a result of intensifying climate change. Photo courtesy UNICEF/Marco Dormino.
Haiti is becoming increasingly prone to flooding as a result of intensifying climate change. Photo courtesy UNICEF/Marco Dormino.

Today, March 22, marks the United Nations’ 20th annual World Water Day, 2013 marks the International Year of Water Cooperation, and 2005-2015 the international ‘Water for Life‘ decade of action. But today, like any other day, most of us will flush the toilet several times, take a bath or shower, boil the kettle, do the dishes, throw a load of laundry in the washer and consume food and other products that require vast amounts of water to make, without even a passing thought about what water is, where it comes from or how we are using it.

Yet this is the day of the year of the decade we come together, united by our common need for clean and available water, to talk about how we can address the fact that about 780 million of us don’t have access to water safe enough to drink, 2.5 billion of us lack basic sanitation, and nearly 4,000 children die from dirty water or lack of hygiene every day.

Behind the times and paying the consequences

With population growth, unprecedented levels of industrial and resource development and the acceleration of climate change, a global conversation about the world’s most precious resource – under stress from all these things – is not only good idea, it’s absolutely necessary.

In 2012, after two years of intense national and international pressure, Canada’s  Conservative majority government ended its refusal to acknowledge drinking water and sanitation as a basic human right under United Nations (UN) resolution 64/292, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 and two months later recognized by the UN Human Rights Council as legally binding in international law.

Yet, as evidenced in an article we published yesterday, Canada’s actions abroad belie its commitment to respect people’s right to water (and other environmental and human rights). At home, the federal government has yet to table a plan or commit funding to realizing the human right to water and sanitation within the country’s own borders. An October 2012 report (Canada’s Violations of the Human Right to Water) published by the Council of Canadians says the Government of Canada is both in violation of the Right to Water and Sanitation human rights law through its continued negligence in its dealings with First Nations and headed toward further human rights violations as a consequence of new legislation in its omnibus budget implementation bill, C-38, which included the “gutting of environmental regulation … in the name of economic growth,” the report says.

“(CETA) would restrict how local governments regulate the activity and investment of private water companies, and encourage and facilitate the privatization of Canada’s largely public water delivery and treatment systems.” – Canada’s Violations of the Human Right to Water report.

Furthermore, the report claims the impending Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), if negotiated under the terms pursued by the EU, “would restrict how local governments regulate the activity and investment of private water companies, and encourage and facilitate the privatization of Canada’s largely public water delivery and treatment systems.” In short, communities in Canada could be bound by law to relinquish control over their own public water supplies to multinational corporations which are required by law to prioritize profits over the well-being of those they service (selling our own water to us), even if it means raising water prices above and beyond what many Canadians could afford to pay.

Closer to home

Residents of some communities in Newfoundland and Labrador already know what it’s like to be without clean drinking water. More than 160 communities in the province have boil water advisories in effect, and people in several of them have been without clean tap water since the 1980s and 90s. On Wednesday Christopher Mitchelmore, MHA for The Straits-White Bay North, introduced a private member’s motion calling on the province to develop a Safe Drinking Water Strategy. The motion was adopted, but whether or not the province will fulfill its promise to help the mostly small, rural communities with a service that falls under municipal jurisdiction remains to be seen.

Sandy Pond has now been emptied of its fish and water because of a loophole in federal legislation. Photo submitted.
Sandy Pond has now been emptied of its fish and water because of a loophole in federal legislation. Photo submitted.

Through a loophole in Schedule 2 of the federal Fisheries Act, mining companies have also found a way to use bodies of water as toxic dump sites for their mining waste, an option that enables them to avoid footing the much larger bill of disposing of the waste in more responsible ways. At the moment, seven lakes, ponds and streams here in the province have been slated for complete annihilation by private interests protected by federal laws.

And in what seems to be the accumulation stage of ingredients for a perfect storm of privatization – the continued encroachment of private for-profit interests, the rapid erosion of democratic practice in local government (unilateral closure of the House of Assembly, Bill 29 – which hinders journalists’ ability to do their job and hold decision-makers accountable for their actions – and the sanctioning of Muskrat Falls without both proper debate in the legislature and adequate environmental assessments, and ignoring the concerns of the Aboriginal People who use the Grand River and Lake Melville and inhabit the surrounding land) and the impending free trade agreement with the EU, CETA – the future of the province’s freshwater and other natural resources is bleak.

More on this in Part 2 of ‘Whose water is it, anyway?’. First let’s take a look back at how we’ve used freshwater to develop industry and exploit other natural resources in the province.

A brief history of Newfoundland and Labrador’s freshwater use for industrial and resource development

by John Matchim

For centuries settlement on the island of Newfoundland did not encroach further than a few miles from the shore. In New England and the Maritimes coastal settlement quickly expanded into the hinterland, facilitating the development of land-based industry and local government. In Newfoundland, however, settlers long remained along the island’s coast, fixed to a “cold-ocean coastal ecosystem,” as Memorial University historian Sean Cadigan wrote in his 2006 article Recognizing the Commons in Coastal Forests: The Three-Mile Limit in Newfoundland, 1875-1939.

Traditional uses of water

Though this settlement pattern imposed more pressures on the cod fishery and made everyday life a struggle for survival, the coastal environment also afforded its settlers immediate access to critical supplies of timber and freshwater. The abundance of fresh water was noted by the first European visitors, ship fishermen who rarely went ashore yet observed “the fertilities and goodnesse of the countrey… full of little small rivers all the yeere long proceeding from the mountaines… and lakes with plentie of fish,” as author Partick O’Flaherty’s recounted in his book, Old Newfoundland: A History to 1843.

While there were many natural barriers to permanent settlement, access to freshwater was not one of them.

Freshwater, of course, was used by settlers for drinking, cleaning, and cooking, while trout and salmon offered a supplementary food source. Waterways were also used to access the resources of the interior, and the rivers that empty into Notre Dame Bay and Bonavista Bay in particular offered excellent canoe routes. More intensive use of fresh water resources were to be found in woodcutting and sawmilling operations where rivers were used to transport timber and power mill machinery, and frozen ponds to transport timber in the winter.

Development of land-based industry

However, industrial use of the country’s freshwater resources began with the rise of commercial sawmilling in the late 19th century as more and bigger sawmills were established across the island to supply building material for St. John’s and the new railways. These operations not only depleted valuable stands of pine, they also polluted the rivers they depended on for power and transport, as well as the bays those rivers emptied into.

Log driving on the Exploits River, circa 1914-1917. Photo courtesy The Rooms Provincial Archives.
Log driving on the Exploits River, circa 1914-1917. Photo courtesy The Rooms Provincial Archives.

Around the turn of the century, Cadigan wrote in Recognizing the Commons, a Justice of the Peace for Trinity reported that the owners of 36 local sawmills were polluting local waters without apparent concern. Sawdust also polluted the Gambo River, and a Royal Navy captain complained of the destruction of salmon fisheries as a result of sawmilling.

In response, coastal settlements pressured the colonial government to establish an exclusion zone of three miles to protect forest and water resources. The difficulties of surviving along the coast, Cadigan wrote, “meant that they [settlers] accepted the principle that no one had a right to enclose or exhaust a resource in a manner that jeopardized the ability of another’s household to survive.” The ‘fishermen’s reserve’ was eventually recognized by the government in 1898, though war and economic decline gradually eroded its viability.

But we need more power

Sawmilling went into decline as stands of commercial timber were exhausted, but in 1909 a new pulp and paper mill was opened by the Anglo Newfoundland Development (AND) Company in Grand Falls.

The new mill required enormous amounts of power, and two hydroelectric dams were constructed on the Exploits River at Grand Falls and Bishops Falls. While a hydro station had been constructed in Petty Harbour in 1900 to supply the St. John’s tramway, the dams on the Exploits River were enormous in comparison, and their construction radically altered the Exploits River ecosystem.

With a new trans-island railway the colonial government was eager to open up the interior to industrial development, and it was willing to grant enormous resource and tax concessions to international investors. Railways and landward development were a central part of the colony’s efforts to diversify the economy following its rejection of union with Canada, and many argue that variations of this policy of landward development and economic diversification have remained evident in the policies of colonial and provincial governments ever since.

Landward industrialization enjoyed pockets of success, but at great cost. The AND Company was given exclusive rights to all natural resources found on company land, including water, and the hydro dams remained the private property of mill owners until their expropriation by the Williams government in 2009 under the Abitibi Act. Construction of a second pulp and paper mill was begun at Corner Brook in 1923, and similar terms were granted to the International Pulp and Paper Company. The Company built a hydro station on Deer Lake to power its mill and used the Humber River to satisfy its enormous need for water.

Meanwhile, in Labrador…

In Labrador the first hydro stations were constructed after the discovery of iron ore deposits in western Labrador and Quebec. The Menihek Dam was built in 1954 to power the iron ore refinery in Schefferville, Que., and a second was built in the early 1960s on the Unknown River at Twin Falls to supply the mines at Labrador City and Wabush. However, all of these projects were developed to generate electricity for other resource projects, but after Confederation the Smallwood government was attracted to the idea of large-scale hydo projects for the export of electricity and to accommodate the needs of potential international investors.

It also marked the continuation of an old colonial policy … of diversifying the single-resource economy of Newfoundland by opening up the interior to industrial development.

Hydro development satisfied Smallwood’s desire for labour intensive megaprojects and the possibility of more secondary resource projects in the future. It also marked the continuation of an old colonial policy, first attempted with the railroad, of diversifying the single-resource economy of Newfoundland by opening up the interior to industrial development.

On the island of Newfoundland that ambition was realized with the construction of the Bay d’Espoir Hydroelectic Development, a 150 km network of dams, canals and generating plants beginning at Victoria Lake on the Newfoundland Plateau. Completed in 1970, the cheap and abundant power generated by the Bay d’Espoir project attracted a phosphorous manufacturing plant to Long Harbour, though effluent from the facility quickly began destroying fish populations in Placentia Bay. The Bay d’Espoir project transformed the topography of the Plateau, which covers just under a third of the island, and for a time made maps of the interior obsolete.

Grand River, here we come

However, it was in Labrador that Smallwood’s hydroelectric ambitions achieved notoriety. There had been proposals to develop the hydro potential of the Grand River’s Churchill Falls since the early 20th century, but the isolation of the site and the low carrying capacity of transmission lines made such ambitions unfeasible. By 1956 the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway had opened up the interior, while better transmission technology made commercial export feasible. The details of the infamous agreement with Churchill Falls do not need recounting here.

In subsequent decades the deal with Hydro-Quebec became “symbolic of Newfoundland’s weak position within Confederation and Newfoundland politicians’ propensity to sign bad deals with capitalist interest from outside the province,” Cadigan wrote in his book Newfoundland and Labrador: A History. In addition, and now largely forgotten, the project buried the Innu cultural sites of Kanekuanegau and Meshikamau under the waters of the Smallwood Resovoir.

All this hydro and industrial development placed enormous stress on the province’s waterways. A report by the Shawinigan Engineering Company in 1968 identified existing and potential environmental problems on the Burin Peninsula (mining), Come by Chance (enormous water requirements and wastewater), Humber River (esturial erosion), Churchill River (mining, flooding) and the Exploits River (contamination from industrial waste). Indeed, Kruger International recently admitted widespread destruction of aquatic life in the Humber River, with mill effluence smothering organisms with wood fibres.

Anything for jobs, no matter the consequences

The development of fresh water resources in Newfoundland and Labrador was rarely in the best interest of the population. While governments grasped for economic diversification and permanent employment for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, their efforts to attract investment from outside the province/colony smacked of desperation, and the generous conditions of development granted to outside investors  were highly unfavourable to the the people they were supposed to benefit, and were especially damaging to the environment. As we will see in the rest of the ‘Whose water is it, anyway?’ series, this historical pattern remains firmly entrenched today, though in a radically different and potentially far more threatening way.

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