March 22, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

How safe is our water? 

On World Water Day, March 22, give thanks for our local water supply; but spare a thought for the less fortunate and for our own future.

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Down in Vancouver it seems to rain non-stop for months on end, drowning the streets in an average of about 1.5 metres of water each year. Up in the mountains, we have clean glaciers and crystal-clear mountain streams filled with melted snow. We even have a local company, Whistler Water, that bottles up filtered groundwater from a 22-metre deep well near Spetch Creek, Birken, and sells it internationally. So it feels almost obscene to worry about our water.

But even here, where nature's bounty is plentiful and relatively clean, our drinking water shouldn't be taken for granted: it has to be gathered, treated, and watched for temporary blips in quality, lest we end up with an outbreak. For Canadians, the perpetual fear is a repeat of what happened in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000 when seven people died and more than 2,000 fell ill from E. coli bacteria in the water — the same bug that causes food poisoning and occasionally plagues foods from hamburger meat to spinach. The cause was simple: farm run-off into a local well. But the town's utilities commission called the water 'okay' even as diarrhea swept through the population of 5,000. There were accusations of loose government standards, ignored bacterial tests and falsified reports, culminating in a couple of jail sentences and a giant wake-up call for Canadians over their water systems.

Today, teams of people are employed to keep tabs on our water quality here in the Sea to Sky region. Through a quirk of geology, we have ended up with extremely clean natural water and the water that comes out of the tap in the local centres of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton is of top-notch quality for a bargain-basement price. But the outlying areas of smaller communities still hit troubles and boil-water advisories often enough. A report last year highlighted ongoing problems particularly with First Nations communities, of which a third in Canada have "high risk" water systems, with British Columbia as the worst offender. And others are campaigning to make us stop squandering the good water we have: right now, locals use 1.7 times more than the national average and more than 10 times as much as people in some water-restricted nations. Though we seem to have water coming out of our ears, wasted water means wasted cash, and possible shortages during summer droughts. Such shortages could get worse in the far flung future as snowcaps recede and glaciers disappear thanks to climate change.

Of course, things are much worse further afield. This month, the United Nations released a report on the state of the world's water (a report that's updated every three years, in time for World Water Day on March 22). The good news is that the world has met, ahead of schedule, the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without safe drinking water from 1990 to 2015. But because world population is booming — due to hit 9 billion people by 2050, up from 7 billion in 2011 — there are still nearly a billion people at risk from bad water. The problems are worst in the crowded slums of some cities — there are more people without tap water in cities today than there were at the end of the 1990s — and in small, isolated communities as you might find in Africa. Communities around the globe face everything from poisons in their wells that can cause blindness and death to salt that sucks life-giving hydration out of their aquifers (see sidebar: Something in the Water).

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