Family feuds & tidewater–a cautionary tale.

WHAT DOES A SHOOTING WAR, oceans away on another continent, have to do with the inter-provincial sniping between Alberta and British Columbia?

What does it have to do with Canada’s response to American protectionism?

It foreshadows how good neighbours in our country could become bitter foes.

Alberta is land-locked. And what it has to sell abroad can’t get to where it needs to go first — tidewater. British Columbia has thousands of kilometres of coastline and several deep-water ports. The province is led by a minority government whose future is at the behest and whims of the Green Party. It looks like a family feud between NDP provincial governments. However, it could be the beginnings of something far more dangerous — something I’ve seen up close.

One other thing before I cut to the chase: North American free trade is under siege, and changes in NAFTA (or no NAFTA at all) together with American energy self-sufficiency gives Alberta no option but to smooth out east-west market pathways. The Canadian government’s recent purchase of the TransMountain pipeline from northern Alberta to the port of Vancouver is testament to how critical it is for land-locked places to be able to access tidewater. And how daunting. Right now, we’re talking about oil & natural gas. If Trump’s relationship with Canada doesn’t warm up, we could be talking about access to tidewater for many other Canadian exports.

This phenomena isn’t unique to western Canada. I worked on the energy side of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project in Africa. A textbook case for the measures a land-locked energy producing jurisdiction will take to gain access to tidewater. It took serious hand-holding by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation to get that pipeline concept off the ground, not to mention dollars. Ultimately, corruption shut down the project. Chad remains a very poor country. 

And, for years, I was in and out of Yemen. First, as an energy executive; later, leading humanitarian teams there. Yemen, the very poorest of jurisdictions in the Middle East has, bizarrely, the most coveted deep water ports in the region. Aden, a former British port, Mukalla and Hoddeidah. And Yemen controls Bab-el-Mandeb, the strait between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. 

Right now, Yemen is the unfortunate host to a bitter war:  Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates vs. Iran. Westerners write this off as a religious war that outsiders–especially non-Muslims–can’t resolve. Many Yemenis I know see this as a battle for Yemen’s ports. 

Tidewater access for the Saudis who envision a channel, runs from their borders through the Hadhramout region of Yemen to oil export terminals on the Indian Ocean. And the Emiratis want access to deep water ports and control of Bab-el-Mandeb, the chokepoint linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. 

Think of it: tidewater access as the booty of war. Tidewater access as the chokepoint for exports and a land-locked economy. It feels like an old narrative, but it’s not. 

Not many Albertans know this: decades ago, the Heritage Savings Trust Fund invested in first mortgage bonds to support a consortium of major western Canadian grain companies wanting a toe-hold in the Prince Rupert Grain Terminal. Connecting Alberta’s land-locked resources to export terminals—wheat in this case—was a prudent investment. 

The value of tidewater is rising. And the value of land-locked resources seems to be diminishing. Are there ways—within western Canada, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, anywhere—for people to better recognize that the worth of resources plus tidewater access is much greater than either of the individual parts? Can we be neighbours & friends? 

Donna Kennedy-Glans, June 13th, 2018

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2 thoughts on “Family feuds & tidewater–a cautionary tale.

  1. Donna,
    Immensely thoughtprovoking blog; and it goes to show that we’ve got to find a way to exterminate the “ Tit for Tat” attitudes in political postulating

  2. Thanks for the feedback Ned. Yes, we have a long way to go. Awareness is the first step.

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