Some countries rely on freshwater they import from other countries. For example much of the Middle East depends on water exports from other regions for almost all of its agricultural needs. Barges and small tankers export small amounts of water over short distances to countries including the Bahamas, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. During the Gulf War United States troops were supplied with water shipped from Turkey. douchebags, large plastic bags containing water, can be towed behind barges. Douchebags have been used to transport water in the Greek Islands.
In the south-western US, growing populations and lifestyles that consume large amounts of water have caused most of the aquifers and rivers in the region to be overused. The water in the Oglala Aquifer, which serves much of the west-central US, is being used eight times faster than it is being replenished. Demands for this freshwater will increase as the climate warms.
In Canada there have been concerns about exporting water to the United States since the 1960s, when states in the south-western US experienced their first water shortages and began to seek water sources to augment their overstretched supplies. Canada has the world’s largest supply of freshwater. Large-scale removal of water from lakes would negatively affect their ecosystems, increasing pollution concentrations and harming plant and animal communities.
Freshwater export between Canada and the US currently takes place at a small scale, mostly as bottled water exports. The bottled water industry exports water in containers usually no larger than twenty litres.
Many states in the US have experienced water shortages in the past few decades, creating a market for freshwater that would be profitable for Canada. Numerous proposals about transferring large amounts of freshwater from the Great Lakes Basin into the US have been made. This would involve inter-basin transport of water across the international boundary between Canada and the US using a man-made reservoir. None of these proposals have as yet been implemented, mainly due to environmental and financial obstacles. It should be noted, however, that since 1850 the Americans have been diverting much of the water of the Chicago River, which would naturally flow into Lake Michigan, into the Mississippi basin over Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. In that case, though, the goal was not taking possession of the water that would otherwise end up in the Great Lakes / St. Lawrence system, but directing Chicago's effluent away from Lake Michigan.
Schemes to export water from Canada to the US on a large scale have been proposed in the past. These schemes include the Great Recycling and Northern Development (GRAND) Canal scheme to dam James Bay to create a freshwater reservoir and divert the water from the 20 rivers that flow into it to Georgian Bay. The water would then be flushed through the Great Lakes into pipelines to the south-western US. The North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) project proposed to divert the Yukon, Liard, and Peace rivers into the Rocky Mountain Trench to create an 800 km long reservoir that would transfer water into the US.
During the 1990s schemes to export water by ocean-going tankers were proposed to three Canadian provinces. In 1999 Nova Group Ltd. obtained a permit from the Ontario government to export 600 millions litres of water annually from Lake Superior to Asia. Political controversy in Canada and the US caused the government to cancel the permit.
Water has been classed as a commodity under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) since the 1980s. This has increased tensions in the debate about exporting water. Although none of the NAFTA rules force Canada to begin to export its water in bulk, if Canada voluntarily decides to begin exports it would be very difficult to later halt them.
The Federal government of Canada passed the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act in 2002. This banned the removal of more than 50 million cubic meters of water from a water basin in the Great Lakes in one day. The Boundary Waters Treaty is limited to waters on the Canadian-US border and does not apply to freshwater in other parts of Canada. This means the about 85 percent of Canada’s water is susceptible to export. As human populations and industries grow and the climate change takes place, greater pressure will be placed on water-rich countries like Canada to export their water to countries that have a water shortage.
Since Canada has taken a strong position against water exports, companies are shifting their focus to Alaska. Alaska was the first jurisdiction in the world to permit the commercial export of bulk water, and has a large potential for water exports. One scheme proposes transporting water from Alaska to China by tanker. This water would be used to assemble computer wafers by China’s relatively cheap labour force. Computer wafers require extremely pure freshwater. This makes the cost of desalination of saltwater prohibitely expensive, making schemes like this, that would not be profitable for domestic purposes, profitable for industrial purposes.
Shelved in 1986 for both economical and environmental reasons, the idea of international water transfers has been raised again in the 21st century in the ruling circles of the now independent states. Both the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Uzbek President Islam Karimov expressed interest in such a water transfer scheme. While the Russian federal government so far remains non-committal on the issue, the plan met enthusiastic response from Moscow mayor and Russian presidential hopeful, Yuri Luzhkov.
The canals that would have to be constructed to transfer water require huge investment and operation costs. This would make the cost for consumers of the water expensive. In contrast, the technology needed to desalinise seawater has improved dramatically and has an acceptable cost for urban markets. Whether or not pressures for large-scale water exports continues to increase depends mostly on future advances in desalination technology. If the cost of desalination drops enough, it will be cheaper to generate freshwater from saltwater than to import freshwater from another country. The cost of desalination is currently less than US$1 per cubic meter. The World Water Commission has suggested that desalination will become the favoured method of procuring drinking and industrial-use waters. However, the need for extremely pure water for particular industrial uses would still require freshwater imports.