Go on now, eat your water!

by Jeff Rubin

• You might not recognize it when you’re chomping on an ear of corn or tucking into a plate of pasta, but it takes an enormous amount of water to grow what is on your plate. When you’re pondering the inputs that go into producing corn or wheat, it’s likely that seeds, soil or even the land itself come quickly to mind; it’s easy to forget the litres and litres of fresh water required. But we shouldn’t forget, given that agriculture typically accounts for over 70 percent of water usage in most countries.

This overwhelming dependence on the wet stuff means that a desert country like Saudi Arabia has to buy land in places like Ethiopia or Sudan in order to grow its food supply. Back in 1985, Saudi Arabia began an irrigation program with a view to becoming self-sufficient in wheat. Turns out that when you live in a desert and you try to grow your own food, you very quickly suck your aquifers dry of whatever fossil water nature has given you. In 2014, the Saudi government wisely announced that the kingdom was abandoning wheat cultivation.

In distinct contrast to Saudi Arabia, Canada has more water than its agricultural sector can use; by some estimates, farming uses less than 10 percent of the country’s total supply. Canadian food production, however, is limited by climate. If Canada had the growing season of Saudi Arabia, it wouldn’t be the planet’s eighth-largest exporter of food. Instead, it would supplant America as the world’s leading agricultural exporter. Alternatively, if Saudi Arabia had Canada’s water, the desert kingdom could easily look like the Imperial Valley.

If one thinks about agricultural production in these terms, food is actually the embodiment of highly processed water. And if that’s the case, then exporting food is really just a value-added way of exporting H20, in much the same way that exporting petrochemicals is a value-added way to export bitumen. Most of us don’t think of food in those terms – at least not yet – but we will when we start making full use of Canada’s greatest resource.

To get there, we’ll have to overcome some pretty ingrained biases. For most Canadians, the notion of bulk water exports has traditionally been viewed as something akin to the rape of the country’s most treasured resource. These same folk, however, have never been opposed to selling water in the form of wheat, lentils or canola. In fact, both federal and provincial governments have set up all kinds of programs to support farm exports, not the least of which was the creation of the Canadian Wheat Board.

Let’s take a closer look at wheat. It takes a whopping 1,500 litres of water to grow a kilogram of wheat on the Canadian prairies. So when you are exporting wheat, what you’re really doing is exporting processed water. In this sense, at least, the country is already a major water exporter – whether Canadians recognize it or not. In 2010, the country exported 78 billion cubic metres of water in the form of agricultural produce (the water needed to grow it). Based on that figure, Canada is already the third-largest water exporter in the world.

All the right stuff in all the wrong places

It’s really not at all surprising that Canada could benefit from exporting water – in either its straight-up or its value-added form. The country has a heck of a lot of the stuff. Depending on which definition you care to use, Canada has somewhere between seven and 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply. The higher estimate refers to total fresh water resources, including the water frozen in glaciers and icefields as well as so-called fossil water in lakes and underground aquifers. The lower estimate refers to the country’s far more accessible share of the world’s renewable fresh water that is replenished through precipitation.

By either measure, it’s a lot of water for a country of 35 million – a figure that represents only one half of one percent of the global population of seven billion. In per capita terms, it makes Canada the Saudi Arabia of fresh water. And just as Saudi Arabia is a world leader in oil consumption per capita, Canada racks up an impressive ranking when it comes to how much water each of us sucks up.

All of that water is a good thing, undoubtedly, and in a world where water can be turned into increasingly expensive food, we should be thanking our lucky stars that geography has endowed us with the natural resources we currently possess. But the story is not that simple. The trick with Canadian water (or any water, really) is that it doesn’t always flow to where it is needed, or where it can best be put to use. Consider that more than half of Canada’s water supply drains north, either directly into the Arctic Ocean or into Hudson Bay. The rivers of the Mackenzie basin, for example, dump over 7,000 cubic metres of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean every second – out of reach of more than 85 percent of the country’s population.

A second but no less serious challenge is that Canada, with all of its water, just happens to be located on the other side of an invisible line, one that separates us from the much larger and thirstier American population to the south. Most agriculture in western Canada occurs within a 450-kilometre band north of the forty-ninth parallel. That’s a pretty thin strip of a country that stretches some 4,634 kilometres from north to south. Furthermore, some of that prime agricultural land is water-stressed. Southern Alberta’s South Saskatchewan River basin, for example, holds the province’s most productive land and contains almost all of its two million acres under irrigation. While less than four percent of arable land in Alberta is irrigated, that four percent produces a fifth of the province’s total agricultural output…

Farmers already siphon off no less than 2.2 billion cubic metres every year from the South Saskatchewan River for irrigation, roughly 30 percent of the river’s total flow. As irrigation needs grow, perhaps exponentially, more and more attention is going to be focused on water diversion. Aside from a slice of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan that is part of the Missouri River basin, all the water flowing across the Prairies heads either to the Arctic or to Hudson Bay. It’s not too hard to figure out where the water to meet tomorrow’s irrigation needs is going to come from. Moving water to booming areas of agricultural production may become as important to tomorrow’s Canadian economy as moving oil is to today’s.

Cover of the book, the Carbon Bubble - earth in spaceExcerpted from The Carbon Bubble by Jeff Rubin. © 2015 Jeff Rubin. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. [Editor’s note: We encourage Common Ground readers to read this very important book.]

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