Thursday, March 22, 2007
Photo: Susan Howatt of the Council of Canadians delivers petitions to Environment Minister John Baird in Ottawa.
Environment Minister John Baird received a gift yesterday, but it was probably not one he was looking for. The Council of Canadians delivered 45,000 petitions to his Ottawa office from Canadians demanding a national water policy to protect Canada’s water supply.
“Every year on World Water Day it is a wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of where we are,” said Susan Howatt, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians. “Canadian concern about water is growing. The environment is a very big issue for Canadians.”
Ms. Howatt wants the government to commit to funding water-related infrastructure projects, prevent the privatization of water services and ban bulk water exports.
“There are lots of people who look at Canada as a water-rich nation and argue that bulk water exports would solve the world water crisis,” said Ms. Howatt. “We know that artificially withdrawing water from one ecosystem and shifting it to another by tanker or pipeline is an artificial fix. What we really need to do is learn to live within the thresholds of our watersheds,” she added.
As well, Ms. Howatt is not pleased with what she refers to as a free ride given to the bottled water industry.
“I would argue that bottled water is, in essence, tantamount to bulk water exports. Any water coming out of the Great Lakes in a container smaller than 20 litres is not regulated and is not monitored,” said Ms. Howatt.
“All jurisdictions allow the sale of water in containers, typically varying to a maximum of 20 to 50 litres,” said a spokesperson with Environment Canada.
“The export of water in such containers is not considered bulk removal by Canadian governments because the amounts involved simply do not compare to what could be moved by canals, pipelines or super tankers,” he added.
It certainly is profitable. Last year, in the United States alone, the bottled water industry reached almost US$11 billion in sales, according to the Polaris Institute.
Canada has about seven per cent of the world’s fresh water and most Canadians have access to their fair share. But you only have to look to Walkerton, Ont., North Battleford, Sask., or Kasheschwean, Ont., to see how Canadian communities sometimes fail to deliver safe, fresh, drinking water to their citizens.
Death, illness and forced evacuations are not things most Canadians think about when asked about water issues in Canada.
“There is no comprehensive water policy in Canada and that is why you have things like Kashechewan happening and boil water advisories in 84 other aboriginal communities across Canada,” said Sara Stratton, campaign co-ordinator with the Toronto-based NGO, Kairos.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did announce C$93 million over two years towards a national water strategy in last week’s federal budget.
This money will go to clean up parts of the Great Lakes Basin, Lake Simcoe, Lake Winnipeg, as well as fisheries programs and water pollution prevention.
Mr. Flaherty also said the government remains committed to ensuring that all First Nations residents have access to safe drinking water.
Can Canadians count on the government alone to make sure they have an adequate supply of safe drinking water? Not everyone thinks so.
"For many years, local governments have refused to raise water prices to sustainable levels, thereby starving their water systems of much needed capital for upgrades," said Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of Environment Probe and author of a recently released report by The Fraser Institute.
"Clearly we can't count on the status quo to meet the challenges facing our water systems. Governments need to consider the benefits provided by private investment and private expertise."
Not everyone is convinced the private sector involvement is needed.
“Our government has a responsibility to provide safe water for people and it has a responsibility to protect it for future generations said Ms. Stratton.
Canada has the ability to overcome its water problems but many parts of the world are having a much harder time.
The theme for World Water Day 2007 is coping with water scarcity.
According to the World Water Council, more than one billion people live without clean drinking water.
Furthermore, developed countries use much more water than other societies: 350 litres in North America and Japan per capita, per day, compared to just 10-20 litres in sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether Canada looks to the private sector to solve its water problems remains to be seen, but Ms. Stratton cautions people to look at a study conducted by one of Kairos’ partner organizations – the African Women’s Economic Policy Network – which studied the affect of privatization of water in Uganda.
“When Uganda received international debt relief, one of the things it had to do was agree to privatize some services, including water,” said Ms. Stratton.
“In some communities where water service was privatized, wells were locked and women (who do much of the heavy lifting in the developing world) had to walk for hours to access drinking water, then bring it back to their homes and prepare meals. As a result, some other chores were not done and some children were not able to go to school. There are many hidden societal costs for not being able to access fresh water,” she said.
It is hard to compare Canada’s water situation with that of other, less fortunate countries. However, Canada, clearly has the money and the know-how to not only guarantee safe water for its own citizens, but to also help ensure the same right for others.
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Exactly eight years after the Mine Ban Treaty became international law some of the same players who helped the treaty gain acceptance are once again calling on governments to support another treaty to ban cluster munitions.
Mines Action Canada (MAC) held a (poorly attended) press conference and rally on Parliament Hill on March 1 and called on the Canadian government to declare a moratorium on cluster munitions and show more leadership on the issue.
Canada has been oddly silent on clusters; a far cry from former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy’s style of diplomacy that once galvanized the country around the landmine ban.
“We need Canadian leadership,” said Steve Goose, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, at the press conference. “Canada has the expertise but it has come to the table late and joined reluctantly. No other conventional weapon today harms as much as cluster bombs,” said Mr. Goose.
Canada did go to the recently completed conference on cluster munitions in Oslo, Norway, and in the end, was one of 46 states to sign the declaration to negotiate a treaty to ban cluster munitions by 2008.
For observers, however, it does not seem that the Canadian government’s heart is in it.
“Canada has a misguided love affair with the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW),” said Paul Hannon, executive director of Mines Action Canada and an expert on victim-activated weapons.
“Canada seems concerned about what our NATO allies are doing (vis a vis a possible treaty) and also seems concerned that the financial costs will be too high,” said Mr. Hannon.
NDP Foreign Affairs Critic, Alexa McDonough called on the government to support the moratorium.
The Oslo conference was organized after last year’s CCW conference failed to push the agenda forward.
As with the Mine Ban Treaty, many of the major players snubbed the conference including the United States, Russia, China and Israel.
Three countries that did go to Oslo – Japan, Poland and Romania – did not sign the declaration.
The problem with cluster munitions is the same problem as landmines – they are indiscriminate. They cannot tell the difference between an enemy combatant and a 10-year-old collecting firewood.
Unlike landmines, cluster bombs have a high failure rate at the time of deployment, meaning they do not always explode when and where they are supposed to. When they do land on the ground – in people’s backyards, in playgrounds – they become de facto landmines.
“We are not going to win the hearts and minds of people by using these weapons,” said Simon Conway, executive director of Landmine Action in the United Kingdom and a former British army officer.
At the rally in front of the Peace Tower, Mr. Conway told stories of his first hand experiences with cluster munitions. He described their military utility as negligible.
“Cluster bombs are like peas in a pod,” Mr. Conway said. “When they explode, they send fragments across an area equivalent to four soccer pitches.”
Not exactly a precision-guided smart bomb.
According to Nancy DeGraff, director of Handicap International Canada, 98 percent of recorded casualties of cluster bombs are civilian and 27 per cent of those are children.
Canada is one of more than 70 countries that stockpiles cluster munitions, however, according to a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, Canada’s remaining stockpiles of cluster munitions are in the process of being destroyed.
At the rally, MAC called on people to sign a petition calling on the Conservative government to actively engage and support the negotiation of new international law to eliminate cluster bombs. People can sign the petition at www.minesactioncanada.org.
Friday, March 02, 2007
Photo: Kathleen Yung talking to a group of Zambian farmers. Photo courtesy Kathleen Yung.
Ask some people what they would do if they could visit Africa and they will tell you they would like to go on a big game safari or see Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Not so for Kathleen Yung. The 27-year-old civil engineer is more interested in helping subsistence farmers increase their crop output and get a better price for their goods.
Ms. Yung recently returned home to Canada after spending three years in Zambia volunteering for the Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders (EWB).
Ms. Yung first heard about EWB while studying at the University of Waterloo. After graduating she accepted a placement with the NGO, took the three-week pre-departure training session and was on her way.
She was aware of how Africa has been portrayed in the media – a lot of sickness, poverty and civil wars – but she was pleasantly surprised to find people proud of their culture and making the most of their situation.
The first project she worked on (in Livingstone) focused on small-scale irrigation – providing farmers with treadle pumps and training farmers to use and repair the equipment. She also helped to link farmers with the marketplace – something new to many of them – especially subsistence farmers with little or no education.
“Zambia used to be a socialist regime so farmers did not need to think about the (free enterprise) marketplace,” said Ms. Yung. “It is still quite a challenging task for them to go to urban centres – which costs money – and bargain (for the best price),” Ms. Yung said.
She spent a year on the project, working with three local field officers. It took some time for her to integrate into the project.
“I would say that defining my role took a bit of time because people did not know what my level of expertise was and also because the people there were quite competent at their work,” said Ms. Yung.
Another project was in the town of Petauke in the eastern province where she worked with the Agricultural Support Program (funded by Canada and Sweden).
Her work involved improving farmers’ business skills and helping them to cost their crops, so they could choose more profitable enterprises. Once again, she helped to link rural farmers and urban buyers.
Ms. Yung says conditions in the agricultural sector in Zambia are looking up but there is still room for improvement.
“One thing I have realized is development is very slow,” said Ms. Yung. “I have seen positive change in agriculture in Zambia in three years. They are starting to understand a market economy. At the end of the day though, they need education. How do you do costings when you cannot do simple math,” said Ms. Yung.
After three years in Zambia, she feels she has made an impact by helping farmers improve their marketing skills.
Ms. Yung did not have to stay for three years but is glad she did. She is quick to credit EWB’s approach to development work.
“EWB puts so much emphasize on integrating into the community,” said Ms. Yung. “The amount of time you spend in the community is important. You cannot experience rural poverty from an SUV,” she added.
In Livingstone she lived with a family in their house. In Petauke, she lived in the hospital hostel (one room, shared facilities). She found the lack of privacy difficult to get used to.
“It is an adjustment for sure,” she said. “As a foreigner, you get a lot of attention. One thing you learn when you go overseas is what you can and cannot handle. EWB tells people – if you run, go for a run. If you do yoga, bring your yoga mat. It does not make you a very good development worker if you are going to blow up in front of other people. You need to find your balance,” said Ms. Yung.
Ms. Yung has many good memories of her time in Zambia.
“Coming back from the fields after a great day with the farmers, riding on the back of a motorcycle and watching the sunset,” she said. “And feeling that progress is being made.”
What surprised her about Africa?
“The strength of the women,” said Ms. Yung. “They are often referred to as the backbone of Africa. They do everything from getting the water from many miles away at 4 a.m., to getting firewood and starting breakfast to working in the fields, to doing the best marketing I have seen in Zambia. I think it is survival. And they do it with a positive outlook. Because the men hold the power, they have the luxury of having their wife do the work.”
Ms. Yung says she has learned much from Africa.
“It has given me a greater appreciation of basic things like happiness, balance, family and friends. When I think of African women, I think that whatever I go through right now, it is very endurable. I have learned (to have) a bit of their strength.
Now that she is back in Canada, Ms. Yung is looking for work in the environmental sector. She plans to stay involved with EWB in some capacity.
Africa has not seen the last of EWB. Thanks to a $940,000 grant from CIDA, another 25 Canadian engineers will be working overseas soon. This will bring the total to 80-90 volunteers on either short-term or long-term placements, according to EWB’s spokesperson, Brenna Donoghue.
Zambia is one of Canada’s 25 development partners. According to CIDA's most recent statistical report on ODA for fiscal year 2004-2005, Canadian ODA to Zambia was more than $45 million that year.