The world needs to prepare for a water shortage—a looming issue that could be the biggest ecological and human catastrophe of our time. Canadians, reared on the myth of abundance, aren’t exempt from it. Water wastage, pollution and the selling off of natural assets are the facts, not the myth, of Canadian water, and a well-known Carleton grad intends to do something about it
Last fall Canadian actor Rod Beattie brought the latest installment of the Wingfield series, Wingfield Lost and Found, to Shenkman Arts Centre in Ottawa’s east end. The wryly humorous one-man show finds stockbroker-turned-gentleman-farmer Walt Wingfield and his neighbours confronting a drought. Helpless, they watch the colour bleach from their fictional southern Ontario community: crops shrivel, wells go dry, and worry stalks their lives. The drought eventually breaks, and audiences leave the theatre as refreshed as Walt and his pals. But the show has a subtext—mankind’s absolute dependence on water and Canadians’ assumption that it will be there, clean, cold and limitless, whenever we want it. And it’s the subtext that lingers, releasing a flow of thoughts about issues that stretch from Ontario’s Walkerton to children in distant places dying because they lack the water we take for granted.
Many experts say we are on the brink of a water crisis, with severe shortages on the horizon, a water supply infused with chemicals from the pills we take and then excrete, and corporations hungry to suck up lakes, rivers and aquifers and sell them back to us in plastic bottles. Maude Barlow, BA/74, LLD/10—national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, vocal advocate for water justice and author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water—was concerned enough to speak to a Carleton audience at a talk last September organized by the Graduate Students Association. She called it the gravest ecological and human threat that we have ever had to face simultaneously. “I could not exaggerate enough about the crisis we’re facing.”
Crisis? What Crisis?
“Why isn’t this on the front page of every newspaper, on every television newscast?” Barlow said in a recent interview. She points to a 2010 report in the journal Nature that found that 80 percent of people on the planet live in areas where river waters are threatened by pollution, water diversion and introduced species. The study’s co-leaders, Charles J. Vörösmarty of the City University of New York and Peter McIntyre of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, reported that rivers are the single largest water resource for humans and, at the same time, are essential to aquatic diversity.
Barlow also mentioned “Global Depletion of Groundwater Resources,” a study led by Marc Bierkens of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. That study found that the rate at which groundwater supplies are shrinking more than doubled between 1960 and 2000. Reporting on the study, the American Geophysical Union said that if the Great Lakes were drained as quickly as we’re depleting the global supply of groundwater, the lakes would be dry in 80 years.
Meanwhile, a study called “Leaky Exports: A Portrait of the Virtual Water Trade in Canada,” due for publication by the Council of Canadians in February, condemns the scope of what it calls Canada’s “virtual water exports.”
“Virtual,” or “embedded,” water is the water used to produce a product or service. Consider the trade in beef. A lot of water is required to raise beef. The amount of this virtual water involved in Canadian beef exports to the United States is immense, according to “Leaky Exports.”
The net annual amount (exports minus imports) is just under 60 billion cubic metres, enough to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto 37½ times.
The environmental cost of this net water loss is not reflected in the price of our beef exports—no surprise, since this virtual water trade isn’t regulated in Canada. Some worry that because water was not excluded from NAFTA, attempts by the Canadian government to limit bulk exports to the United States of just plain water, let alone the virtual kind, would not survive corporate challenges.
Barlow and the Council of Canadians are not alone in their thinking. R.W. (Bob) Sandford, Canadian chair of the United Nations committee on Water for Life Decade and author of three books on water issues in Canada, spoke last spring to a conference of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, studying Canada’s water. Sandford warned of international food shortages as freshwater sources are depleted and populations grow. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says that by 2030, nearly half the world’s population will live in areas that are going dry or will have to use unsafe water. The global problem is less a lack of water than access to good water, says Nicole Ollivier of the Montreal-based One Drop Canada, an NGO that develops access-to-water and sanitation projects in needy countries.
She points to a tragedy everyone knows about—a year after Haiti’s earthquake, 70 per cent of the country’s nine million people are without access to clean water, even more have no toilet, and a cholera epidemic is raging. And water shortages have unexpected ramifications too. “Women and girls are especially affected because they are often in charge of collecting water, and if you’re spending a lot of time doing that, you’re not going to school,” Ollivier says. “In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, girls have to leave school at puberty because there’s no proper sanitation.”
Interpretations about the crisis vary. Karen Bakker, director of the water governance program and Canada Research Chair in Political Ecology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says reports of a global water crisis are overblown. “Often it comes down to mismanagement and inefficient use. Most places where water shortages are reported, we have more than enough for everyone, but it’s poorly managed and poorly distributed,” says the author of the influential 2007 book Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water and the recently published Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World’s Urban Water Crisis. But Bakker does point to the very real potential for localized trouble, including in Canada. “What’s got everyone worried is the next Walkerton and where that will happen, because it’s almost inevitable that it will. We don’t really have a handle on small-community water supplies where they’re groundwater-dependent,” she says. Another stark but ignored (except by the people living there) water crisis festers on Canadian First Nations reserves. More than 75 per cent of them have no access to reliable potable water, and more than 100 reserves have permanent boiled-water advisories, some in place for decades.
More Water Worries
Other experts point to drugs and endocrine-disrupting compounds in our water. Present in such pharmaceutical products as birth-control pills and cosmetics, these chemicals wind up in the sewers. Usually not screened out by conventional sewage treatment, they can get into the water supply. An associate professor in Carleton’s department of civil and environmental engineering is trying to mitigate that threat. Banu Örmeci, who is also Canada Research Chair in Wastewater and Public Health Engineering, is working with Carleton chemistry professor Edward Lai on a new water purification technology.
With a $159,000 grant from the Canadian Water Network, a federally funded centre, the two are researching polymers, synthetic compounds that will latch on to selected chemicals. A magnetic field would then remove the particles and attached toxins from the water. A pilot project could be running at a sewage-treatment plant within a couple of years. Although Örmeci points out that these potentially dangerous compounds have been in our water for decades and exist in minuscule amounts, she says, “It is a concern and needs to be studied.”
The Knowledge Gap
Since the time of the voyageurs, water has been an essential part of the Canadian complexion, says Robert Slater, an adjunct professor at Carleton and director of the Regulatory Governance Initiative in the university’s School of Public Policy and Administration. We’ve used it lavishly for everything from generating electricity to operating farms and making pulp and paper. Unfortunately that means “Myths have developed that there’s a surplus of water here,” Slater says. And when there’s a perceived abundance of something, we squander it. The average Canadian uses over 300 litres of water per day, more than double our European counterparts. But we say, “Oh, there’s no shortage of water here.” The Great Lakes alone represent the largest system of fresh surface water on earth, even if we do share it with the United States. It comes as a corrective to realize that with about seven per cent of the world’s land surface, we also have about seven per cent of the world’s renewable fresh water—not so abundant as we think, although our relatively sparse population gives us, for now, lots of liquid per person.
“When we look down the pike, there’s going to be much greater competition for the sort of water that’s required,” says Slater, a former senior official with Environment Canada. “Urban development in places like Calgary is already constrained by the available supply of water.” Others point to a failure to map Canada’s groundwater. If we don’t know what’s in the aquifers or where those underground systems run, how can we protect them?
Scott Vaughan, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, was thinking along those lines when he tabled his audit recently in the House of Commons. He was critical of Environment Canada for not adequately monitoring Canada’s freshwater resources. Vaughan found that despite four decades of feeble efforts, the department is not tracking water quality on most federal lands; doesn’t know what, if any, monitoring is being done by other federal departments; and doesn’t validate the data collected through its own program. Among other deficiencies, he noted that the department has only one long-term monitoring station in the Athabasca River, and it wasn’t designed to monitor pollutants from the oil sands project.
As if all this weren’t enough to make you swear off bathing forever, there’s climate change. “It’s the elephant in the room,” says Slater, and no one knows just where it’s going to step or how heavily.
What to Think?
Environment Canada’s National Water Research Institute, in its 2004 report “Threats to Water Availability in Canada,” posited worse drought, more flooding and the dramatic shrinking of glaciers (which feed watersheds) as possible outcomes of climate change. But Carleton geology professor Tim Patterson, a spirited critic of those who pin climate change solely on human activity, says we simply don’t have enough paleontological data to predict what could happen as a result of the intersection of man-made greenhouse gases and naturally occurring climate cycles.
If his prediction that the Earth will enter a cooling period at the end of this decade is correct, then it’s anybody’s guess what will happen to water. Whereas the Sierra Club and others have foreseen a climate-related drop in Great Lakes water levels of up to 70 centimetres, Patterson says cooler weather could mean more rain and stable lake levels. What to think, indeed.
Plugging the Knowledge Gap
Örmeci is helping to shrink the knowledge gap, and not just by whipping up smart particles to target hormone-disrupting compounds in the water supply. With funding from the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, she’s also investigating real-time monitoring methods for municipal water and wastewater disinfection. Most monitoring now requires at least 24 hours for test results to be available. With such a slow turnaround, she says, “If there was E. coli present, a lot of people could get ill before you got the results. Real-time monitoring would make the water supply safer and prevent possible future waterborne outbreaks.”
Aware that knowledge is power, meanwhile, Carleton’s School of Public Policy and Administration is in preliminary discussions with United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Hamilton about establishing a joint credential program in the water area.
“What Carleton can bring to the table is the strength of SPPA in policy development and research. UNU presently does not have this ability,” says John ApSimon, interim dean of Carleton’s Faculty of Public Affairs. He added that Slater is designing a water course for possible inclusion in the program, which could be launched this fall.
Water for Sale. Or Not.
If your name is T. Boone Pickens, you already own more water than any individual in the United States. The oilman and corporate raider has snapped up water rights in a remote part of the Texas Panhandle and hopes to sell 246 billion litres of the stuff to Dallas each year, earning as much as $165 million annually in the process. Pickens is not alone in commodifying water. Just think of the mammoth bottled-water industry, which, for better or worse, annually sells billions of litres, often buying it from municipalities for a song. It has been predicted that worldwide, water-related business income will rise to almost $1 trillion annually by the end of the decade.
Those who say that water is a common good and selling it for private gain is unconscionable include the Council of Canadians and two U.S. organizations, Food and Water Watch and On the Commons. They have teamed up to demand that the Great Lakes be made a public trust. Barlow is currently readying a report on the matter and says the goal is a binational treaty declaring the Great Lakes a commons, public trust and protected bioregion. Barlow notes that last summer, the UN declared water a human right. Whether and how that right will be implemented remains to be seen. Most of the world’s local water systems are run by governments—and run poorly. Some still argue for privately run systems, but under tight government regulation.
Politics as Usual?
Bakker applauds a resurgence of interest in water governance. One is a research and public-awareness program on water sustainability by the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment. Bakker says Canada is still “kind of the Wild West of water regulation.” In British Columbia, for example, no legislation governs what is injected into groundwater while natural gas is being extracted, a process known as fracking.
“We continue to allow resource extraction to take precedence over the environment and human health,” says Bakker. “There many examples like this across the country where we have simply abdicated our responsibility to regulate. There is no other OECD jurisdiction like this. To give you an example, the [Canadian Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality] are only guidelines; they’re not law.” Critics point out that the Canada Water Act—the main vehicle for federal involvement in managing Canada’s water resources, including water quality—was considered a leading piece of legislation in its day but is now four decades old and showing its age.
The last Federal Water Policy—introduced in 1987 to explain the federal government’s philosophy and goals for Canada’s freshwater resources and proposed ways of achieving objectives on such matters as integrated planning and water pricing—has died a slow and mostly unnoticed death, with nothing to replace it. One reason might be that fresh water is largely a provincial responsibility in Canada, even though water doesn’t respect borders. But the federal government is leery of meddling in other jurisdictions.
Some provinces have taken action. Ontario’s Clean Water Act, a direct response to the Walkerton tragedy, has been praised for protecting water at its source. Quebec introduced its own water policy in 2002, and the Manitoba government has created a department of water stewardship. But “There are a lot of provincial policies that over-promise and under-deliver,” says Ralph Pentland, acting chair of the Canadian Water Issues Council and president of water policy consulting agency Ralbet Enterprises Inc. He says federal-provincial relations and a federal governing party that’s more open to free-market thinking than to policy or strategy development mean that government control of water resources might have to wait until enough First Nations and other groups sue the government for having allowed our water to become polluted.
Pentland and Nancy Goucher of the Forum for Leadership on Water provide a succinct analysis of federal inaction on water and suggest solutions in “Wonky Policy,” in the February 2010 issue of Water Canada. They want a national water strategy, federal legislation to prohibit the removal of water from Canada’s major river basins for bulk water exports, and more money for water science.
Robert Slater sounds more optimistic than most water watchers. “Reforming water management is well within our grasp. It’s a matter of deciding this is important and, if it’s important, allocating the people, the money and the equipment to make it happen. We have a choice: we can do it gradually, systematically, at a comfortable pace, or we can adjust under a sense of crisis and emergency. That’s the least effective and most expensive way.”
David Brooks, director of research at Friends of the Earth Canada and an enthusiastic proponent of water conservation, says that sense of emergency might arise from our national experience. “In Canada, there’s a gut-level interest in water. Everyone has a feeling for that lake or river that flows through their area or by their cottage, and they want something better for it.”
Drips and Drops
Water facts to ruin your sleep—and some good tidings
Newspapers, magazines, the internet: there’s a deluge of alarms about water issues. Thanks to Water Canada magazine, the World Water Council, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—among others—for the following:
- Of the 10 costliest natural disasters in Canadian history, six have been drought. The drought of 2001–2002 in the Prairies cost the economy nearly $6 billion and 41,000 jobs.
- Water shortages could affect half the globe’s population within 20 years, killing millions of people and multiplying the number of conflicts over shrinking resources.
- It takes 2,000 to 5,000 litres of water per day to produce food for a typical North American. A semi-vegetarian diet could reduce that demand to as little as 860 litres.
- While the world’s population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources grew six-fold.
- Every day 3,800 children die from diseases associated with unsafe drinking water and a lack of proper sanitation (2007 figures).
- High levels of raw sewage, pesticides and other unpleasant stuff leaking down through the earth in groundwater are showing up in caves. About a third of the drinking water in the United States comes from underground springs and streams linked to caves.
- Torontonians alone send roughly 65 million empty plastic water bottles to landfills each year. But at least 40 Canadian municipalities, universities and school boards have banned or severely restricted the sale of bottled water on their properties.
- Small cities in British Columbia could reduce water consumption by 44 per cent through such strategies as the use of waterless urinals and rainwater harvesting. Those savings would offset the increased water needed if the population increased by 75 per cent.
- The declining long-term supply and quality of Canada’s fresh water has worried 84 per cent of all Canadians, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll from 2010. Where there’s concern, there may be action.