Water, water - not everywhere


By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks


Two recent reports on the state of Canada's water supply show that quality is still an issue, especially in First Nations communities, and that we are wasting and polluting water so much in this country that we may run into problems with supply in the future.


That's odd when you consider Canada has more fresh water than any country in the world.


The first report, by a Vancouver-based environmental watchdog group called Ecojustice, gave the federal government an "F" when it comes to water quality across the country. This is most evident in First Nations communities, where 126 of them are under water advisories - up from 108 in 2008.


The release of this report prompted a motion by the Liberals to deal with the situation, a motion the federal government has agreed to take on. Considering it's been more than a decade since the drinking water problems in Walkerton, it's about time.


The second report, issued by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, provides another disturbing perspective, stating that basic data on our water supply is inadequate. In other words, we don't accurately know how much we have and where it all is, and management of water resources is confusing and different across the country.


Since more than 80 per cent of water usage in this country is by industry - mostly energy, agriculture and resources - the report recommends that those industries pay more to have access to it and be much more efficient in its use.  For example, a great deal of water is used to extract oil from underground and to separate oil from the oilsands. Much of that water becomes so contaminated in the process it is unrecoverable. As the oilsands project expands in the future, that demand for water is expected to increase significantly.


Beyond our rising demand for water, pollution and diminishing supplies of fresh water due to climate change threaten the security of access to clean water in the future. How did this happen in a country dotted with countless lakes and rivers?


To give you a perspective, fill a glass of water to the brim and let it represent all of the water on planet Earth. How much of that glass is available to 7 billion humans?

Not much.


First, pour 90 per cent out. That's the salt water in the oceans.  


Then pour out 90 per cent of what's left. That's the ice in Antarctica, Greenland and the glaciers.


Then continue to pour water out of the glass to account for what's not available to us because it is either in deep aquifers, taken up by plants or still floating in the atmosphere. Keep pouring until there is only one drop left in the glass.


That single drop, .03 per cent of all the water in the world, is the fresh water in our lakes, rivers and groundwater that is available to all of humanity.


But here's the kicker: 20 per cent of that drop lies in Canada. That's right - we hold almost a quarter of all the fresh water in the world. And yet we are having problems with quantity and quality. That's ridiculous and it's fixable.


The water the Earth has today is the same water it has always had. Most of it was brought to our planet by comets and asteroids that struck the Earth when it was young, billions of years ago. Since then, it has been recycled over and over again, thanks to the miracle of the water cycle, where contaminants are left behind every time water evaporates, so rainfall is clean.


In other words, if we simply stop putting contaminates into it, and into the air, water will clean itself up.


Millions of dollars will be spent over the next decade building water treatment plants across the country to make sure that what comes out of the tap is potable. But that's only one end of the pipe. If industries polluting the water in the first place were held accountable, the problem would largely take care of itself.