hydropower water wars A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © enigma_art \ Fotolia.com

Canada currently produces 60 per cent of its power through hydroelectricity – third most in the world. As we expand our portfolio of renewables many would hope to see that number continue to rise, but there are mitigating geo-political circumstances looming upstream.

Water is what economists call a common good, which means that the consumption of water by one person prevents another person from having that water. The water will eventually re-enter the water cycle, of course, but in a different place at a different time.

Despite being a common good, water is counted among the world’s renewable energy sources because it’s so plentiful. Water-rich countries like Canada are able to use a substantial fraction of their water resources not for irrigation or drinking, but to produce energy in the form of hydroelectric power.

So to return to the classic economic example: if a hydroelectric station steals my glass of water and uses it to create energy, I’m short a glass of water. But I can easily collect another glassful from Canada’s 3,300 cubic kilometre supply of fresh water.

However, there are places in the world where this simple economic equation is being played out along much more desperate lines.

Ethiopia is currently building its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam along the Blue Nile River. The completed dam will carry a substantial 6,000-megawatt capacity, powered by water contained in a 65.5 billion cubic metre reservoir. The Blue Nile currently provides 85 per cent of the Nile’s water, which is Africa’s most essential artery, running through eleven different countries. If Ethiopia, where the river originates, were to redirect a substantial quantity of water for the dam, those countries downstream could lose between 11 and 19 billion cubic metres of water.

Egypt is one of the countries furthest downstream, and it is in no mood to be facing additional threats to its national food supply. Climate change is already diminishing the amount of water it has available for irrigation. Reflecting something of the general Egyptian opinion over the dam, recently-ousted President Morsi hinted not-so-subtly at what increased desperation might drive him to do: "We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security ... to be threatened." He can hardly do otherwise, faced with the possibility that his growing population might begin to starve.

Water and food security is something of a preoccupation in the US as well, where climate change threatens to create a landscape as dry as Egypt’s, with its accompanying political tensions. Washington DC, New York City and Los Angeles are among major American cities expected to experience severe water shortages over the coming decades. Meanwhile, the parching of Las Vegas is so imminent that certain websites feature a running countdown toward the city’s desertification.

Would the US invade Canada for water? Almost certainly, if they were desperate enough. But both sides can see this problem coming and there’s plenty of time to work out an alternate solution. Infinitely more likely is the following scenario: as American (and indeed, global) fresh water supplies dwindle, Canada begins to sell its most precious resource to its neighbour. Given that so much of our water is used for hydroelectric purposes, as opposed to drinking and farming, it would be massively unfriendly – not to mention lacking in strategic foresight – to deny our neighbours the water to meet their basic needs.

The resulting cuts in Canadian water use (assuming sufficiently substantial volumes) will likely come from our hydropower production. Which means that renewable energy projections for the coming decades should take into account at least a small decrease in the level of hydroelectricity. We need to plan to compensate with higher levels of wind and solar energy production.

That this political reality can be reduced to an economic equation should not be taken as an indication that the stakes are anything but high. As Canada’s common good becomes not so common globally, it will not be economically or politically possible to use all that water for energy. There will soon be more thirsty countries than available glasses of water, and that will certainly make things tense.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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