Will the next war with Canada be a fight over water?

Burning of the White House
Public Domain Burning of the White House

On August 24, 1814, two hundred years ago yesterday, British forces burned down the White House, in retaliation for the American's blowing up the Town of York, now the City of Toronto. It was a stupid war; Thomas Jefferson said it would just be "a mere matter of marching", but 200 years ago today the President was hiding in a shack in Virginia. Simon Worral writes in National Geographic that "it was one of the most humiliating military defeats of American history—to see their capital burned, their Army literally running away, and President Madison and his wife, Dolley, forced to abandon the White House. It was a catastrophe."

Reading Allan Taylor's wonderful history, The Civil War of 1812., it becomes clear that it was really about real estate and resources. I wrote in a review of the book that the real point of the battle wasn’t to annex Canada and to push out the British; The war of 1812 was less of a war against the British than it was against the Indians. The British supported Indian rights in the Ohio valley, and this was blocking American westward expansion. Taylor writes:

To condemn vast regions of territory to perpetual barrenness and solitude, that a few hundred savages might find wild beasts to hunt upon it, was a species of game law that a nation descended from Britons would never endure.

Lake Mead via Wikipedia/Public Domain

Much the same situation exists today. California is going through the worst drought in recorded history, sucking its aquifers dry. Lake Mead, behind the Hoover Dam, is at 39% capacity; It supplies 90% of the water to Las Vegas and if it drops another 30 feet, the water outlets will be above the surface. Professor Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institute tells the Express: "The situation is as bad as you can imagine. It's going to be screwed - and relatively quickly. Unless it can find a way to get more water from somewhere, Las Vegas is out of business."

Meanwhile, north of the border...

Meanwhile, north of the American border is a vast region of territory, most of which is consigned to perpetual barrenness and solitude. (90% of the Canadian population is huddled for warmth within 100 miles of the US border) It happens to control over 21% of the world's supply of fresh water, but more importantly, The Great Lakes contain 84% of North America's surface fresh water.

They are protected by treaty and the USA cannot simply stick a straw in it. Or can they? The Canadian ambassador to the US has noted in an interview that water issues in the future will make the current Keystone debate "look silly."

I think five years from now we will be spending a lot of our time diplomatically and a lot of our work on dealing with water.

We have 20 per cent of the fresh water (in the world) in the Great Lakes. We share three oceans. We have the Passamaquoddy dispute (Canada opposes liquefied natural gas tankers transiting Canadian waters in Head Harbour Passage in New Brunswick.) We have the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake of the Woods. We have the Missouri River diversion. We have the Flathead River. We’ve got the Columbia River Treaty …

We’re blessed with a lot of water, but we cannot take it for granted. We have to manage it more effectively and that means waterflows south to north and north to south … There will be pressure on water quality and water quantity. I think it will make a debate about going from 85 to 86 pipelines look silly.

NAWAPA

NAPAWA via Wikipedia/Public Domain

There have a number of proposals to divert Canadian waters south to solve America's water woes. In the 50s, the US Corps of Engineers proposed the North American Water and Power Alliance, diverting western rivers to a giant 500 mile long reservoir that would hold 75 million acre feet of water, enough to feed the west and even Mexico. Beloved Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson said "This can be one of the most important developments in our history; Environmentalists of the time described it as "brutal magnificence" and "unprecedented destructiveness."

The GRAND Canal

GRAND Canal via Wikipedia/Public Domain

For 55 years, until the day he died at age 100 last November, Engineer Thomas Kierans peddled the Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal (GRAND) concept. A huge amount of water flows from Quebec and Ontario into James Bay at the bottom of Hudson's Bay; Kierans proposed a giant dike across the top of James Bay to capture all the fresh water.

GRAND Canal via Wikipedia/Public Domain

About 2.5 times the volume of Niagara Falls would be pumped overland to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.
Kierans claimed that “before construction is completed, the total value of social, ecologic and economic benefits in Canada and the U.S. will surpass the project’s costs.” Prime Minister Mulroney loved the idea, but many Canadian conspiracy theorists were convinced that it was all part of a plot: "Conspiracy theorists believed that forces interested in a North American Union would agitate for Quebec separation, which would then touch off a Canadian civil war and plunge the Canadian economy into a depression. Impoverished Canadians would then look to the canal project and North American Union to revitalize the Canadian economy."

Both of these schemes would change Canada environmentally and economically, but then that didn't stop the tar sands development, which has done both. And in California and Nevada, that "vast region of territory, most of which is consigned to perpetual barrenness and solitude" is going to look pretty attractive. Ambassador Doer is right: the fight down the road is over water, not oil.

Tags: Canada | Water Conservation | Water Crisis

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