Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Canada thirsty for new water ethic

Peak water will replace peak oil as greatest concern says chair of UN Water for Life Initiative

In a single generation, Canada has evolved from a from a nation that took great pride in its citizens' ability to drink from almost any river, stream or lake in the country, to one seriously concerned about water quality and availability now and in the future.

And as a result of the country's water resources having become strained in response to increased population and the range of agricultural, industrial and recreational activities multiplied, the perceived abundance of Canada's freshwater resources is being questioned.

"Growth and prosperity is leading many Canadians to recognize the limits of what they know and can predict about how much water will be available in the future," said Bob Sandford, Canadian chair of the United Nations Water for Life Initiative, in an address to the Canadian Security Traders Association, which took place at Whistler's Westin Resort and Spa Aug. 12.

"As often happens with wealthy people, we have, over time, lost touch with the source and true nature of our wealth. Where once we carried in our minds a detailed mental map of our country's great rivers, we now live in a linear world defined by the straight-line logic of the train, the car and the plane."

It is crucial, Sandford insists, that Canada embrace a new water ethic if it hopes to achieve any meaningful degree of sustainability.

"Ours is the greatest of all hydraulic civilizations," Sandford said. "By the year 2000, we had constructed some 45,000 large dams that in combination with the hundreds of thousands of smaller structures quadrupled water storage for human purposes in only 40 years. Depending upon the time of the year, three to six times the water that exists at any given time in all the world's rivers is now stored behind giant dams."

No one, however, has examined or is able to predict the cumulative global-scale effect of uncoordinated dam building, irrigation diversions and the related impacts of deforestation on the timing and extent of water availability or on water quality.

"Add to these the impacts of groundwater overdraft globally and belatedly we realize our own potential to alter the world's water cycle," Sandford said.

Human activity has affected the planet's natural hydrological cycle by altering the composition of the atmosphere and how much land cover exists to capture, store, purify and release rain that falls. Humankind has affected rain and snowfall patterns, and ultimately, the amount of water flowing in rivers and even those rivers' ability to reach the ocean.

A new Canadian water ethic, Sandford insists, is essential as a warming global climate threatens the reliability of national and regional water supplies the world over, including the freshwater stored in western Canada's diminishing glaciers.

"Where once we were concerned about peak oil, now we are talking about peak water," Sandford said.

For its part, Canada's surface waters have become increasingly contaminated, while water flowing in many of the country's southern rivers is fully, and in some cases over-allocated to human purposes. Algae blooms in many streams, rivers and lakes as a result of short-sighted agricultural practices. Canada is home to the largest toxic tailings ponds and largest surface mines in the world. Groundwater quality in southern Canada has deteriorated to such an extent coast-to-coast that aquifers that cross the US/Canada border are now becoming contaminated.

"The gap between water haves and have-nots will grow between those who control upstream water flows and downstream neighbours who do not receive all the water they need for industry and for cities," Sandford said. "The gap will widen even more between nations that have sufficient water supplies to grow their own food and those who do not."

Eventually, the global response to water scarcity will be measured by how much water is traded among nations in the form of water embodied in food and other products that require considerable water for their production.

"This growth in virtual water trade internationally could be of great importance economically to Canada," Sandford said. "Some experts have predicted that as a result of that trade agriculture will ultimately become even more important to the economy of Canada than oil and gas."

But first, he added, Canada must appreciate and protect what it has. The idea, common in most political and corporate circles in Canada that the marketplace will take care of the country's growing water woes, is misguided, he said.

"One obvious example is that we will build water treatment systems everywhere rather than addressing water quality issues through source water protection," Sandford said.

Another example of an ineffective market-based solution is the proliferation of bottled water.

"There are places in the world where bottled water is necessary and, because of local water quality, likely always will be," Sandford said. "In the developed world, however, the marketplace success of bottled water is a triumph of marketing over common sense and appropriate action. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced through subtle and not so subtle manipulation of our desires to pay thousands of times more for what we already get almost for free. The irony is that we drink bottled water even though billions are being spent to ensure that the quality of our public drinking water is the best in the world. Meanwhile, a billion people on Earth cannot afford reliable public water supplies or bottled water - and we say we can't afford to help them."

If the $100 million spent annually on bottled water was committed instead to addressing the global water supply and sanitation crisis, Sandford argues, there would be little need for bottled water in most parts of the world within a decade.

Countries that are prosperous in the future, he suggested, will be those with enough water for food, for cities, for industry and for nature - and that know how to ensure that each gets what it needs.

Currently, the central principle of the water ethic practiced almost universally in Canada is the primacy of human dominion over water resources, an ethic founded upon the belief that water, like all of our planet's natural resources, exists to be used at humanity's complete discretion.

Fortunately, Sandford said, that view is being challenged.

"We now realize that in order to provide water and other benefits to people, nature needs water, too," he said. "Nature can't be where we send water only after we have taken all we need."

A new Canadian water ethic, he suggested, should incorporate respect for First Nations' rights and values; a strong public and private sector commitment to expand safe, reliable public water supply through infrastructure development and improved asset management, water re-use and effective water pricing that encourages conservation; and the recognition of nature's need for water.

Canada's water ethic must also transcend jurisdictional fragmentation and institutional territoriality and allow water to be managed on a watershed basis.

"Canada's future does not have to reside solely in becoming a global fossil-fuel energy super-power," Sandford said. "Our future could just as easily reside in virtual water export and in the development of sustainable, scaled-to-situation water supply solutions that make more productive use of available water supplies. Unlike many places in the world, Canada still has room to move in how it manages its water resources. With a new water ethic in place we could become a sustainable society. Then we really will be leaders with something new and useful to share with the rest of the world. If this is what we desire, however, we should get moving while the room to move is still there."