The theme of World Water Day 2015 is Water and Sustainable Development, but Blogtography believes water is such an important issue that it deserves a whole week. So, it's World Water Week here. In Canada, the most pressing issue of sustainable development connected with water is the opening of the Northwest Passage and the development of a sustainable tourism policy for the Arctic.
The polar regions are among those most severely affected by climate change, and the opening for navigation of the Northwest Passage across the top of Canada is an undeniable example of the effect of the new reality. In the nineteenth century, British naval officer Sir John Franklin and the crews of his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, tried to find a way through the Passage. Famously, all were lost and the numerous searches for Franklin, his men, and their ships have contributed to the romantic history of the region. In the summer of 2014, an expedition partly funded by the Canadian government found HMS Erebus on the sea floor. The researchers relied partly on historic testimony from local Inuit hunters who had come upon the ships and their cargo. Other hunting parties had encountered the last surviving members of Franklin's party, stumbling across the snow in search of abandoned caches of supplies.
The search for the remains of Franklin's expedition was a priority for the Canadian government: Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, travels to the Arctic every year as part of his campaign to establish Canada's sovreignty over the Arctic. Proving a British team discovered the Northwest Passage meant Britain's claim would be inherited by Canada. And, as the Arctic thaws and its mineral and other natural resources are available for harvesting, every country with a potential claim will begin pressing. Canada and the United States, in particular, will need to agree ownership of these waters.
In addition to tourist vessels and private yachts, cargo ships with icebreakers have been moving through the Northwest Passage over recent summers. It is not all smooth sailing, however: the Passage is not well charted and shallows and sand and gravel bars add to the hazards of pack ice and "growlers," small, hard pieces of icebergs floating in the water that can tear holes in a boat's hull.
It is vital that the communities on the shores of the Beaufort Sea and the other bodies of water that comprise the Northwest Passage are involved in any plans for the region's development. Local people will benefit from the money brought in by tourists, but their lives will also be changed by the influx of outsiders and the possible environmental threats posed by increased shipping: invasive species carried in balast, oil spills, and disruption to the migration and nesting sites of native animals.
Although the Northwest Passage lies mostly across the top of Canada, and the Canadian Parliament named it the Canadian Northwest Passage in 2009, its access to the Pacific Ocean goes along the coast between Alaska and Russia, through the Bering Sea. International law dictates that the North Pole and the waters surrounding it are international waters, part of the "heritage of all mankind." The coastal waters, and perhaps more significantly, the sea floor, adjacent to each of the five Arctic countries, however, is theirs. The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea gives each Arctic country ten years to make claims to the resources on the seabed of their extended continental shelf. Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark have all signed and ratified this treaty. The US has signed, but has yet to ratify it. As with that other ice, the hockey rink, the gloves will come off between Canada, the US, and Russia over the vast riches to be claimed from the Arctic Ocean floor. Friends of this blog who are familiar with the Arctic have said that Canadian government cartographers are employed to very carefully map the shoreline in an effort to establish exactly how far the land shelf extends from shore. The countries of the Arctic Council all jockey for position on the shifting ice floes of the region. And, perhaps unusually for Canada, there is a direct dispute between Canada and Denmark over the ownership of Hans Island, located in the middle of an international strait.
That disagreement is probably the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Our government has recently licensed oil exploration in the region, and Stephen Harper's personal interest in the North, when his interest in most of Canada is cursory at best, shows that he has an agenda. Our pristine North, with its so far unexploited rich natural resources, is at risk. When the oil and minerals beneath the Arctic Ocean become more accessible, the local people and animals will probably need to head for the hills, but those are melting....