Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
These words may never be more accurate or prophetic if one employs them to describe the Alberta government’s on-going efforts to deregulate and commoditize water. This is why we should be questioning the common sense, or lack thereof, of privatizing water before blindly racing to create a market for all of Alberta’s water. Albertans understand the value of water more than most, because we live in an arid province. In southern Alberta alone last year, 10 counties declared a state of emergency due to drought.
The economic theory driving the commoditization of water can be traced to the published works of economist Milton Friedman and his disciples at the Chicago School of Economics. The theory simply adheres to the prescribed doctrine of privatization, meaning everything should be bought and sold freely because the market knows best. One of Friedman’s more famous protégés, economist Gary Becker, not only promotes the economic theory to privatize water, he also advocates for a free market in human organs. He justifies his belief in these economic tenants on the premise the public welfare would increase if the rich were able to pay the poor for their kidneys or water rights.
This is essentially an ideological position, but it is not difficult to comprehend what could happen to the quality of life in rural Alberta, if the fundamental ingredients of life were priced and made available for sale to the highest bidder. The privatization of water would be the death knells for the family farm and many small rural communities, because they simply will not be able to compete with industry’s thirst for water.
While some farmers may choose to quit farming and profit in the near-term by selling their water rights, industrial forces (corporations) seeking to monopolize water have already laid down the legislative framework in Alberta to, (in effect), steal water rights by simply purchasing the aquifer out from under them. The Land Stewardship Act creates the framework that could remove water rights altogether or just deny rural communities and property owners fair compensation for their water rights.
For example: section 19 of the act states, “No person has the right to compensation by reason of this Act”. This is not to say the public will not receive compensation, but if the Land Stewardship Act is applied to help facilitate a water market, it does affect and over-rule 26 other pieces of legislation, including the Water Act and the Municipal Government Act.
Free market principles have their zealots and skeptics, but rarely does anyone ever question or debate whether the value of something can be truly expressed in monetary terms. Without water nothing lives; in effect water is one of the foundations of life. The value a corporation would place on human life or water may always be expressible in monetary terms, but does that truly correspond to the value humans place on life? If we privatize water, will the public be price makers or price takers on our own lives? It is a valid question we should be asking before Alberta’s government privatizes water, lest we forget the immoral example of Ford Motor Company’s decision to continue producing the Pinto because the average cost of $200,725 per death settlement, resulting from a gas leak, was cheaper than a $12 fix per vehicle. The Ford example is not isolated; there are many examples of corporations placing profits over human life.
The seriousness of this issue cannot be understated. Whoever controls the water in this province — controls life. The value of water is priceless, and it is why it should remain regulated in the public domain!