Opinion: The U.S.’s freshwater crisis could lead Washington to look northward. Is Canada ready to quench its thirst?

A once sunken boat lies high and dry along the shore of Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on May 10.John Locher/Associated Press

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown and editor of Harper’s Worlda collection of essays on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy record.

Our closest neighbor to the south has a serious problem – and I’m not talking about racial animosity, gun violence or political polarization.

To put it bluntly, much of the United States lacks accessible water. And it puts the lives of millions of Americans at risk.

Much of the American Southwest, in particular, has struggled for the past 22 years with a mega-drought, the worst dry spell the region has seen since at least 800 AD, according to a study published earlier this year. in the journal Nature Climate Change. Indeed, climate change, population growth and increased industrial and agricultural use have only exacerbated this drought. This prolonged period of extreme drought has changed the way people live, according to Teri Viswanath of CoBank ACB, which is part of the US Farm Credit System: “Given the length and intensity of drought conditions in the west, there is a growing sense that low availability of hydropower is the “new normal”. ”

In the desert state of Nevada, for example, the government pays homeowners to remove grass from their properties (and therefore the need to water it) and replace it with crushed stone. Almost every hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip has posted signs about water conservation and reusing bath towels, to reduce washing.

In neighboring California, Governor Gavin Newsom pleaded with citizens to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%, but the appeal was a flop. As long as people could draw water from their taps, many felt there was no need to put such a drastic measure in place. But in June, the US Drought Observatory reported that more than 97% of the state was in “severe, extreme, or exceptional” drought conditions. Many vital water reservoirs in the region are at half capacity or less.

In May, strict water regulations for about six million Southern Californians went into effect. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is now aiming to reduce water consumption by an unprecedented 35%. “We haven’t had the supply to meet the normal demands that we have,” MWD Managing Director Adel Hagekhalil said, “and now we have to prioritize between watering our lawns and water for our children and grandchildren and our livelihoods and our health”.

If a Californian were to violate MWD restrictions on lawn watering, he or she would initially face a warning letter, followed by escalating fines. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city’s water and power department “will step up patrols to look for people who are violating or wasting water.” And it’s possible that a total outdoor watering ban could be imposed in September if things don’t improve.

In June, the Biden administration also released an action plan on global water security, placing the issue among its top foreign policy priorities. As well as committing to defusing potential conflicts over access to scarce water resources in various parts of the world, the plan calls for new efforts to ensure there is enough water to sustain health care systems. health and an adequate food supply. “Many of our most fundamental national security interests depend on water security,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said during the announcement.

And so, politicians and government officials in Ottawa have a lot of questions to ask themselves if the water crisis in the United States continues to be so urgent.

Do we have extra water to spare for our American friends? What could Canada extract from the United States in exchange for diverting huge volumes of fresh water south?

Over the years, various engineering proposals have been floated to divert significant amounts of Canadian fresh water south. None of them have made it off the drawing board. But should that change, given the looming crisis in the United States? What infrastructure would be needed to get there?

And what would be the geopolitical implications if the United States knocked on our door over water exports and Canada said unequivocally no? Would this potentially involve military action?

If the United States is going to take our water anyway, shouldn’t Canada be trying to get something out of it? In this new, more delicate era of U.S.-Canada relations, Ottawa could consider using water as leverage to end U.S. border barriers and its emergency protection laws, such as trade tariffs and countervailing duties.

There is also another key question: if Canada decides to turn on the tap, can we turn it off later, if we change our minds? I wouldn’t bet on it wishing well.

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