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Indonesian children play near a heavily polluted river in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. March 22 is adopted by the United Nations as World Water Day to raise awareness of freshwater and advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources around the world.

Tatan Syuflana/AP/Tatan Syuflana/AP

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien says it is time for Canadians to debate whether they should share their water with the rest of the world, noting the country exports other natural resources such as oil and gas.

Proposals to export large volumes of water have touched off explosive debates in the past, as was the case in British Columbia, Ontario and Newfoundland in the 1990s. Each time, intense public backlash nixed export bids.

But Mr. Chrétien, who governed during much of the 90s and was in Toronto on Tuesday for a conference on global water conflicts, believes a new national discussion is needed. A growing part of the world is grappling with water scarcity. Some experts suggest wars in the future may be fought over water, Mr. Chrétien noted to reporters.

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"We have to be able to debate any issue," he said. "We're selling oil. It's finite. We're selling natural gas. It's finite. Water, it's raining and snowing in Canada every year," he added.

"Water is something that is not finite."

Mr. Chrétien's comments drew swift rebuke from the Council of Canadians, a group that has long advocated for a national ban on bulk-water exports.

The organization's chairwoman, Maude Barlow, said it is disconcerting that the long-time federal leader is opening the door to a water-trade debate. She argues the country would lose control of the resource if it begins providing it to customers south of the border and beyond.

"For him to say Canada should start thinking about sharing, he means selling," Ms. Barlow said. "This is a very bad signal and it will be taken seriously because of who he is."

Mr. Chrétien indicated he hasn't made up his mind on whether the country should share its water, but believes Canadians should not be afraid to have the debate.

He recalled being taken aback by the emotional opposition that was sparked to a businessman's proposal to ship water in ocean tankers from a lake in Newfoundland to customers overseas.

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Facing growing public anger to the bid, the provincial government killed the Gisborne Lake plan.

The B.C. government's decision to reject a commercial proposal to transport water via ocean tankers to a water utility in California triggered an unresolved arbitration claim under the North American free-trade agreement in 1999. That same year, widespread opposition erupted in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada and the United States after a company obtained a permit to export up to 600 million litres annually from Lake Superior to Asia. The permit was later revoked.

Prime minister from 1993 to 2003, Mr. Chrétien is co-chairman of an international council of former government leaders that is examining ways to diffuse water conflicts. Members of the InterAction Council are in Toronto for three days, hearing from more than a dozen leading academics and policy experts. The gathering will result in recommendations to help governments counter threats to water supplies.

The United Nations projects that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world could face stress conditions. The Middle East and northern Africa are particularly vulnerable, but hot spots include Canada's neighbours - the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the United States' Great Plains and Mexico City.

Significant population growth in the developing world and climate change are exasperating threats to water security, said Bob Sandford, who spoke at the conference Tuesday.

Mr. Sandford, head of a Canadian water initiative tied to the United Nations, believes the world is facing a hydro-climatic time bomb that could result in increasing conflicts, and possibly wars, over water.

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"Water availability will not just affect agricultural production," he said. "Prosperous countries in the future will be those that have water."

Historically, though, few wars have been fought solely over water. Co-operation and thousands of treaties have soothed tensions, said international law expert Patricia Wouters. She expects this pattern will continue, but called on the Canadian government to take a leading role on the international water front.

"I would like to see more hydro-diplomacy," Dr. Wouters said. "I think Canada is a nation that's best placed around the world to lead and champion on the very difficult issues related to water security."

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