On World Water Day, do something to conserve our most precious resource: Bob McDonald

As the climate warms, the world may face a water crisis. But there is much that can be done to conserve the valuable resource, Bob McDonald writes

Earth's warming will have effect on supplies and quality around globe

Dry land that would be under water when the lake is full is seen next to Gregory Butte in Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., on May 26, 2015. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

​March 22 is UN World Water Day, when you can add events in your community to others around the world to appreciate and protect our most precious resource.

February was the warmest month on record and Arctic ice cover is expected to be at an all-time low this year, which means the warming of the Earth will have an effect on water supplies and water quality around the globe.

We're not running out of water — yet — but climate change is shifting the patterns of water distribution so areas that were once green are drying up, other areas are flooding, monsoon rains are coming at different times of the year and glaciers continue to vanish at alarming rates.

But there is much that can be done to conserve water, and a lot of it has to do with consumption.

According to Environment Canada, the average Canadian consumes about 250 litres of water per day.  

That is more than 10 times the water consumption in some African countries, which makes Canada among the largest per capita users of water in the world. 

A man walks across the dried-up bottom of Xiliu Lake on Feb. 12, 2009. The lake was one of the major water sources for Zhengzhou city, in central China's Henan province, before a drought set in. ((Associated Press))

That includes drinking, cooking, flushing toilets, doing laundry, cleaning, watering the garden — a long list of routine tasks that involve water use.

And that's just at home. Industrial and agricultural water consumption is on top of that. The oil industry is a huge consumer, with the Alberta oilsands project consuming more water per year than the City of Calgary. Meanwhile, fracking consumes millions of litres of water per well and the industry is expanding with increased use of natural gas. 

Soaked in water

While both these industries are recycling more of that water, once it has been used in oil and gas extraction, it cannot be used for human consumption.

We have been spoiled with abundant water because our country holds one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply.

Just look at a map of Canada and you will see a line of large lakes, starting with the Great Lakes in Ontario, through Lake Winnipeg, Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake, plus thousands of smaller lakes in northern Quebec, Ontario and the Northwest Territories, not to mention the St. Lawrence, South Saskatchewan, Mackenzie and Fraser rivers. Yes, compared to other countries, we are soaked.

But while we are used to being surrounded by lots of water, on a global scale, the Earth doesn't have much fresh water available for humans.

Take a look at this dramatic illustration from the U.S. Geological Survey and you will see that if all of the world's water, including the oceans, were formed into one big drop, it would form a sphere 1,376 kilometres in diameter, which is about as wide as the Prairie provinces. Out of that, the fresh water available to humans is a sphere only 56 kilometres across.

That's not a lot of fresh water for seven billion humans to live on.

That's also why water conservation is so important.

Make up your own event

So, on World Water Day, celebrate water with a community event. You can find out what's happening in your area using the UN Event Map

Or if there isn't an event in your area, make one of your own and get on the list.

Clean up a stream, have a festival by the water, visit a water treatment plant — anything with a water theme.

Then, find out ways you can reduce your own water consumption by installing efficient shower heads, low flush toilets, low volume clothes washers and rain barrels.  

Do whatever it takes because every drop counts.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.