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Water and Sovereignty throughout the Western Hemisphere

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While water issues are quite complex, among the most common themes running through the treatment of water in the Western Hemisphere are issues of sovereignty and self-determination practices. In Canada over the past several decades, debate has raged about the potential for large-scale water sales to the United States, with some referring to water as a commodity, and others conceiving it as the “very essence of our nation.” [1] In El Salvador, the fight against exploitation and contamination of water by extractive industries has revealed the lack of sovereignty over water resources afforded to the Central American nation under its international free trade obligations. In Argentina, public outrage over potential contamination on its border, the River Uruguay, from an Uruguayan pulp mill has led to extensive international arbitration. These cases, while vastly different in their causal factors and current outcomes, reveal a clear disconnect between the priorities of the region’s citizens and the goals of national and international corporate actors, who seek to use water for profit or to pollute it as a byproduct of their operations.

Many consider water to be a fundamental human right as well as a vital part of the world’s ecosystems, and their concerns must be incorporated into a regional trade regime, which in its current form, tramples over any effort towards protecting water resources from transfer or contamination by international corporations. Nations in the region must come to a new agreement treating water as a human right, with all of the obligations inherent in that definition. If private interests are left to do what they wish with water resources, the resulting disasters will have broad-reaching implications for the well-being of the region’s people, as well as the environment in which they live. This analysis will utilize three case studies, those of Canada, El Salvador, and a dispute between Argentina and Uruguay, to highlight the complex issues surrounding water sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere

Water Transfers in Canada: Reality or Pipe Dream?

A 2004 poll found that 97 percent of Canadians agree with the notion that clean drinking water is a basic human right, this is an astonishing figure. [2] Tied in with this near universal rejection of the commoditization of water is a strong sense of national pride and belief in Canada’s sovereignty over its hydrologic resources, which comprise 7 percent of the world’s total renewable water supply. [3] This pride has hindered those who would divert the nation’s water for use in the United States. Efforts and plans to transfer water in bulk from Canada’s boundary waters date back to the 1960s, during the global obsession with large-scale water infrastructure. Plans were drawn up for huge canals to transport water from Canada to Southern California, an area with a huge population and little potable water. Even at that time, with the environmental movement only budding in the two countries, at least 70 percent of Canadians opposed water export, a tendency that scholar Fréderic Lassiére calls “hydro-nationalism.” [4] Canadians have maintained their dedication to water sovereignty despite the nationwide prevalence of notions that water in the country is “infinite, plentiful, and renewable.” [5]

The concerns of Canadian citizens that their water will be traded away are entirely legitimate, as the nation’s officials have put their political weight behind such plans in the past. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) was among the number of officials who expressed support for large-scale water projects in the 1960s, when he was Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. At the time, he gave an interview to Time Magazine in which he claimed that “within 25 years [Canada] will be exporting water.” [6]

The potential for environmental damage from such transfers is enormous – You can check out BMS CAT Water Damage Restoration Guide for more details – Research suggests that even when transfers to and from basins are kept no more than 10 percent of their total volume, this can have devastating impact on the ecology of the affected areas, including the spread of invasive organisms, transfer of pollutants, and shifts in water flow that can disrupt the lives of native species. [7]  What planners propose are transfers far greater than 10 percent of the total. In addition, a study conducted in 1996 found that harmful non-indigenous aquatic species annually cost the United States “hundreds of millions to perhaps billions of dollars,” indicating that these ecological costs generate direct economic costs as well. [8]  Ralph Pentland from Canada’s Green Party also points out that large-scale water transfers are not a sustainable solution to the recipient basin’s water problems, and could simply put off the inevitable, along with encouraging further population growth in areas with scant local water resources. [9] Fundamentally for Canadians, however, the central issue is sovereignty over water. Water, for them, is not something that “should be treated like other natural resources [e.g. oil, gas, minerals, timber, etc.] as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market to U.S. consumers.” [10]

A bill, titled the Canada Water Preservation Act, or C-267, has been introduced twice before the Canadian Parliament, first in April 2008. The measure would have banned inter-basin transfers, but was defeated in favor of a far weaker measure, C-383, which does nothing to prevent transfers via tanker trucks, ships, or pipelines. [11] There is no legal regime protecting Canada from such violation of its water resources. Fortunately, the huge number of overlapping jurisdictions, coupled with little real public support for transfers and a notable lack of reference to water in the Canada-U.S. Free-Trade Agreement, make the possibility of huge transfers unlikely. Planners would have to receive broad approval from a huge number of local, municipal, and national bodies, and the costs of such projects run in the billions. For the moment, it appears that Canada’s national sovereignty over its water supply remains secure.

REUTERS/Toby Melville
REUTERS/Toby Melville

Mining and Environmental Contamination in El Salvador

The same cannot be said for El Salvador. The Central American nation has exhibited similar tendencies towards valuing sovereignty over its water resources, and is in the process of attempting to ban the large-scale mining that has left 90 percent of their surface water heavily contaminated. In the words of the National Roundtable on Mining, “we can live without gold, but cannot live without water.” [12] The discovery of gold in the country has led to extensive investment in mining, often despite the objections of those in the areas affected, especially in the department of Cabañas and the municipality of San Sebastián. The Salvadoran government, both at local and national levels has been fighting legal battles with the international mining corporation Pacific Rim, among others. The firm, which was recently purchased by Australian company Oceana Gold, bought mining concessions for the El Dorado gold mine in Cabañas, a northern province near the Honduran border, in 2002. The mine was estimated to be worth $3.3 billion USD in 2007, and the corporation’s resources are massive. [13] At the same time, at a national scale, Salvadorans are profoundly unhappy with the practices of the extractive industry. A survey in 2007 by the University of Central America found that 62.5 percent of Salvadorans were against mining, and this tendency has not faded, with 62 percent expressing support this year for a bill to ban mining in the country. [14]

Gold mining has resulted in extensive “acid mine drainage,” which contaminates water and makes it extremely damaging to human health. If it touches the skin it results in rashes. Sulfuric acid is released by mining, and then eats into the surrounding rock, releasing more toxins in an accelerating feedback loop of pollution. [15] In 2006, a study concluded that the San Sebastián River, a dumping ground for the Commerce Group’s nearby San Sebastián gold mine, was 100,000 times more acidic than neighboring bodies of water. [16] This pollution eventually renders water resources unusable, effectively stealing water from local communities.

This extensive environmental damage has led to extensive resistance, at both local and national levels, sometimes with deadly results. Startling violence faced those who protested the El Dorado mine. Many received death threats, some from an email called “exterminio pacific rim,” several escaped attempted assassinations, and at least three were murdered. Marcelo Rivera, brother of mining activist Miguel Rivera, was killed by four gang members, who were each allegedly paid $100,000 for the job. [17] The mining companies do not accomplish their goals with violence alone. Zucker, who investigated the conflict as a student on a Yale Fellowship, notes that “because Salvadoran law taxes corporate profit one percent at the local level and one percent at the federal level, the municipality of San Isidro would see its budget increase tenfold – to $1 million – if the project went through.” [18] This simple factor—the enormous amounts of money involved—corrupts and distorts governance in El Salvador, creating twisted incentives for local politicians.

El Salvador eventually asserted its sovereignty over its water resources, in 2008 issuing a moratorium on new mining permits, based on a massive public opinion shift towards denouncing water contamination by extractive industry. Pomona College professor Heather Williams pointed out in an interview with COHA that “the El Salvadoran campaign to ban gold mining had a lot of nationalist elements to it, especially given the critical role of the Lempa River [which is heavily contaminated] in supplying the country’s agriculture and major cities.” [19] This point is further reinforced by Angel Ibarra, director of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit, who emphasized in comments about a possible water bill that it should “avoid privatization of water, so that the ANEP [National Association of Private Enterprise] or transnationals don’t steal the water and so water can continue to be a public good, a good that is vital for the entire country.” [20]

The reaction to this move was immediate. Both the Commerce Group and Pacific Rim have brought suit against the Salvadoran government, suing the country for more than $400 million USD in a World Bank trade tribunal. Pacific Rim claims that El Salvador is not complying with the Central American Free Trade Agreement, indicating an intent to reject the country’s sovereignty of its water resources. [21] These international cases have yet to be concluded.  The fact that El Salvador is not afforded the right under international trade law to protect its water resources from contamination, despite the demands of its public, indicates the need for reform of those international agreements.

At the Boundaries: Sovereignty over the Uruguay River

Sovereignty issues become blurry at the boundaries of states, as exemplified by ongoing disputes between Argentina and Uruguay over the Uruguay River, which serves as the border between the two neighboring countries. Generally friendly relations between the two nations were shaken when plans were revealed in October 2003 and February 2005, respectively, for Spanish company ENCE and Finnish firm Botnia to build pulp mills in the western Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos, just upstream of Buenos Aires. Residents in the Argentine town of Gualeguaychú, directly across the river, periodically protested, frequently blocking the bridge that spans the river. They allege that a mill would contaminate the water of the river and affect their livelihoods, stating: “Gualeguaychú will not accept an undertaking that is illegal and contaminating [of the river]; the Uruguayan government had deaf ears to our tactics, and gave inexact information about pollution, we reject the installation of more facilities on the Uruguay River and strongly oppose their production.” [22]

The conflict was the topic of many high-level meetings between the countries, but no resolution was found. Argentina filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2006, centering on the fact that Uruguay had built the mills without prior consultation with the Argentine government. [23] ENCE agreed to move its mill away from the river, but in 2007, the Botnia mill began production. The case in the ICJ was finally resolved in April 2010, ruling that the plant can continue operation. At that time, the two countries agreed to create the Comisión Administradora del Río Uruguay (Administrative Commission of the Uruguay River, CARU), a valuable step towards cooperation. However, this accord was shattered when, on October 2 of this year, the Uruguayan government approved an increase in production from 1.1 million to 1.2 million tons annually. Argentina has promised to bring this issue back to the ICJ. [24]

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Source: Miguel Rojo/ AFP / Getty Images

This conflict, and especially the intensity and duration of the protests undertaken by residents of Gualeguaychú, shows the true sense of ownership that Argentines felt over their water supply, and over the river itself, despite the fact that they share it with Uruguay. In a very real sense, the water is their common livelihood, and their conception of the resource seems incompatible with the views of those operating the pulp mill, who see it as an input and output to their production process.

These cases seem to exemplify the fundamental tension between economic growth and environmental protection. In each of these cases, an outside force acted on a country’s water resources with profit as its goal. While the outcomes vary widely between cases, each in its own way demonstrates the need for an overarching framework of practices and guidelines which respects a human right to clean water and the sovereign right of nations to resist incursions on their water resources. In Canada, the threat arising from huge water transfers seems to have faded. However, in El Salvador and Argentina the struggle is ongoing. International agreements in this context seem fundamentally out of sync with the attitudes of the people they’re supposedly serving. Certainly, there are those in Fray Bentos who care more about the jobs the pulp mill brings than they do about the water quality of the Uruguay River. Ten thousand protested in the city on March 16, 2006, countering Argentina’s sovereignty claims with their own, claiming the right to economic production which is technically located on their own soil. In Canada, there are commentators who argue the benefits of water transfers from Canada to the United States. Meanwhile,in El Salvador, while dissent is rare even among the conservative ARENA party as a result of massive social mobilization, some commentators still call for opening up rather than closing the country to mining interests.

However, when information is drawn from these cases and dozens of similar ones, it seems that Latin American citizens reject outside incursions on their water supplies, and reject the international agreements that facilitate them, demanding things from them that would never be demanded of citizens in the United States. Moving forward, water resources will only become more scarce. Water expert Heather Williams states that “Water, food production, and land use issues should lead diplomacy in the Americas. [They’re] hugely important given the prominence of polluting industries such as mining in hemispheric growth, as well as the outsized impact of climate change on tropical latitudes.” [25] Now is the time to do just that, to let these issues take the forefront in international trade policy. Now is the time to create inclusive agreements surrounding water, agreements which respect local and national sovereignty, and which recognize water’s unique properties that preclude it from being treated like any other commodity.

Thomas Abbot, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] Pentland, Ralph. “Canadian Water Sovereignty.” Green Party of Canada. August 19, 2007. Accessed November 5, 2013.

[2] Bakker, Karen. “Eau Canada; The Future of Canada’s Water.” UBC Press. 2006

[3] “Mission 2012: Clean Water.” MIT. Accessed December 4, 2013.

[4] Ibid. Pentland, 2007; Norman, Emma, Alice Cohen & Karen Bakker. “Water Without Borders?: Canada, the United States, and Shared Waters.” University of Toronto Press. 2013

[5] Ibid. Norman, Cohen, & Baker. 2013

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid. MIT. 2012

[8] “Potential Aquatic Ecological Impacts of Interbasin Water Transfers in the Southeast, West-Central, and South-Central Study Areas.” Geo-Marine Inc. January 22, 1996. Accessed December 4, 2013.

[9] Ibid. Pentland. 2007

[10] Clarke, Tony. “Turning on Canada’s Tap?” Polaris Institute. July 14, 2006. Accessed November 7, 2013.

[11] Scarpaleggia, Francis. “A missed opportunity to protect Canada’s water sovereignty.” iPolitics. October 11, 2012. Accessed December 6, 2013.

[12] Cavanagh, John and Robin Broad. “Mining for gold in El Salvador: A Pact with the Devil?” UpsideDownWorld. September 14, 2012. Accessed December 5, 2013.

[13] Zucker, Gabriel. “El Salvador: Mining the Resistance.” Monthly Review. June 2010. Accessed December 5, 2013.

[14] Ibid; Karanunanthan, Meera. “El Salvador Mining Ban Could Establish a Vital Water Security Precedent.” The Guardian. June 10, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.

[15] Ibid. Cavanagh & Broad. 2013

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid. Zucker. 2010

[18] Ibid

[19] Heather Williams, interview with the author

[20]  “Organizaciones exigen se apruebe la Ley General del Agua.” Diariocolatino. August 22, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013.

[21] Ibid. Karunananthan. 2013

[22] “Argentina and Uruguay settle seven-year pulp mill row.” BBC. November 16, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2013.; “Los Asemblistas acordaron no entregar el petitorio por la decisión de Uruguay de negarles el ingreso.” Telam. October 6, 2013.

[23]  “El Conflicto por las papeleras a llegó a La Haya.” La Nación. May 4, 2006. Accessed December 6, 2013.

[24] Romig, Shane. “Argentina Vows to Challenge Uruguay Pulp Mill Expansion at U.N. Court.” Wall Street Journal. October 2, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2013.

[25] Ibid. Heather Williams, interview with the author