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IJC Suggests the Great Lakes are not Exportable

Today, nearly half a billion people in 31 countries are experiencing chronic water shortages. In 25 years two out of three people could live in water-stressed conditions if rates of water consumption go unchecked, according to a World Meteorological Organization report to the United Nations.

Aware that clean fresh water is coveted and will probably become more so, and faced with a proposal to annually export 156 million gallons (590 million liters) of water from Lake Superior to Asia, Canadian and U.S. governments decided to confront the legal, ethical, and environmental issues that would influence the future of the water in the Great Lakes. They asked the International Joint Commission (IJC), the team appointed by the governments to manage the shared boundary waters, for a blueprint that might protect the Great Lakes Basin from the potential impacts of water removal and consumption. The IJC released that blueprint on March 15.

The report indicated that keeping over five quadrillion gallons of water in its native land is emotional, logical, complicated, and...necessary. The IJC recommended that governments prevent the removal of water from the Great Lakes Basin unless ecosystem integrity is provably unharmed and practical alternatives are non-existent. The IJC would permit water exports for short-term humanitarian purposes. To date, exporting water from the Great Lakes is uneconomical. Ironically, fourteen bottles of water are imported for every bottle that leaves the region.

Consumption chart

Types of Consumptive Use in the Great Lakes Basin

The IJC suggested that the governments oppose new or increased consumptive uses of water from the Great Lakes Basin unless cumulative impacts have been considered, conservation practices are implemented, and returning water is uncontaminated. During their inquiry, the IJC found that 95 percent of the water taken from the Great Lakes is returned. Irrigation (29%), public water needs (28%), and industrial uses (24%) account for most of the withdrawals (based on data gathered around Chicago, IL. See graphic above, courtesy of the International Joint Commission.) The report encouraged the governments to generate standards for increased consumptive uses of the water and suggested that regional needs threaten the Great Lakes more than national or international water problems.

The IJC noted that we still have much to learn about the water and hydrology in and around the Great Lakes. The commission recommended that the governments promote the efficient use of water by, among other suggestions, setting water prices at a level that encourages conservation. During a public forum held over the Internet, James Baldini, chairman of the IJC, said, “You’ve got to begin by setting an educational program for water conservation. States and provinces must start conservation programs. Agriculture must use water more efficiently.”

The report urged the governments to manage water conservatively. It also concluded that international trade law obligations, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), do not prevent Canada and the U.S. from protecting their water resources providing there is no discrimination against individuals from other countries.

For more information, including the IJC’s Final Report on Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes, visit them on the Web.


By Sharon Moen
June 2000

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