While some might cite maple syrup, a publicly funded healthcare system, or the incumbent Prime Minister in a list of the nation's most valuable resources, Canada is known and even mythologized for its supply of fresh water. And this perception is not unwarranted, the Great Lakes, its rivers, and groundwater, Canada is home to over one-fifth of all freshwater in the world. However, this narrative of abundance is not all true. It must not be used an excuse for a lack of sustainability and conservationist policies in the face of the global crisis of water scarcity. Beginning in 2005 and ending in 2015, the United Nation’s “Water For Life Decade” was adopted to attention towards draw global attention this resource. Although over 2.6 billion people have gained access to water within that decade, most coverage of this change has been focused on the Global South. But where do such notions of progress leave nations who began with a supposed surplus? In spite of both non governmental and federal support for international initiatives against water scarcity, particularly in the Global South, Canada’s “myth of abundance” has created a barrier towards finding better water security and conservationist policies nationally.
In Canada, water is truly all around us. Yet, the perception of its bounty as a sustainable resource bolstered in advertisements, and whose idealism often seeps into political discourse, ultimately falls short with the difference between the nation’s “water stock” and its “water supply” (2). According to scholars such as Karen Bakker, of the 20% of the world’s fresh water supplied by Canadian lakes, less than 7% of it is renewable (3). This means that while Canada carries a physical excess in comparison to water stressed countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, it is by no means safe from the impending reality of water scarcity. Moreover, neither Canada’s status as a so-called “developed” country nor its large reserves of freshwater exempt the nation from the need to reassess water use in the face of increased demand and urbanization.
With a lack water management, the current national consumption rate rests just above 300 litres a day, with the average Quebecer using upwards of 400 L a day and earning the nation “C” grade by the standards of the Conference Board of Canada (4). While since the early 2000s municipal governments in Toronto and Vancouver have required water meters that measure usage at commercial, industrial, and residential levels, McGill University’s own sustainability project, “Water Is Life,” has illuminated the ways that Montreal in particular has lagged behind in moving the ideals presented by a city mandate in 2002 towards tangible change (5).
As a direct consequence of these water management issues, the quality and accessibility of water affects millions of Canadians every day, with the daily impacts of climate change only working to exacerbate stress on the environment and communities who lack support at every level of the government. Most expressly, and as published by news platforms such as CBC, over 100 First Nations are currently under a boil water advisory. Forced into a state of water scarcity, the consumption of unclean and toxic water has had detrimental effects on the health and overall well being of of indigenous communities across the nation (6). However, the impacts of water scarcity for indigenous peoples are not only restricted to physical affects like skin infections and outbreaks of E-coli, but are felt culturally, as the water occupies both practical and spiritual use and its contamination hinders “water ceremonies, customary fishing and hunting practices, and ways of sharing traditional knowledge” (7).
Despite the current Liberal government’s commitment to environmental issues, what remains clear with consideration for indigenous-settler relations is that the nation's water management crisis was created within the gap between policy goals and action. And while its resolution must come from the same place, the success of changing water stress and scarcity begins with individual action.
So, one last question:
Did you just leave the tap running?
(2) Karen Bakker. Eau Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014: 27.
(4) "The Great Leaks: Water Use and Scarcity in Canada." Business In Vancouver. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.biv.com/article/2015/3/great-leaks-water-use-and-scarcity-canada/.
(5)"How much are we using?" Water is Life! February 25, 2014. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.mcgill.ca/waterislife/waterathome/how-much-are-we-using.
(6)Edition, The Early. "Canadians should think about water security, UN official says." CBC News. January 18, 2016. Accessed December 27, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/water-security-canada-1.3409338.
(7) "Canada: Water Crisis Puts First Nations Families at Risk." Human Rights Watch. June 07, 2016. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/07/canada-water-crisis-puts-first-nations-families-risk.
"Abundance of freshwater 'a myth'." The Globe and Mail. March 27, 2017. Accessed December 31, 2017. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/abundance-of-freshwater-a-myth/article964085/.
Bakker, Karen. Eau Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014.
"Canada: Water Crisis Puts First Nations Families at Risk." Human Rights Watch. June 07, 2016. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/07/canada-water-crisis-puts-first-nations-families-risk.
Edition, The Early. "Canadians should think about water security, UN official says." CBC News. January 18, 2016. Accessed December 27, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/water-security-canada-1.3409338.
"How much are we using?" Water is Life! February 25, 2014. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.mcgill.ca/waterislife/waterathome/how-much-are-we-using.
Jolicoeur, Thomas. New study calls average water use by Canadians 'alarming'. Accessed December 27, 2017. http://www.nationalpost.com/rss/study calls average water Canadians alarming/1402591/story.html.
"The Great Leaks: Water Use and Scarcity in Canada." Business In Vancouver. Accessed December 27, 2017. https://www.biv.com/article/2015/3/great-leaks-water-use-and-scarcity-canada/.
Warren, Jim. "Fresh water scarcity is an issue in Canada too." Toronto Sun. September 24, 2016. Accessed December 27, 2017. http://torontosun.com/2016/09/24/fresh-water-scarcity-is-an-issue-in-canada-too/wcm/c87ed2c5-bfe8-43c0-9d70-4d0389acc35d.