Five Scary Facts About Canada’s Water (And Two Bits of Good News)

Canadians have long been labouring under “the myth of abundance” when it comes to our water resources and we’re in the midst of experiencing an abrupt wake-up call, according to experts.

“We often think of the earth as this wonderful blue pearl, but how much water is there?” says Oliver Brandes, leader of the Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria. “Only 2.5 per cent of that water is fresh. A much smaller amount, about 0.3 per cent, is the ground or surface water where we live.”

Brandes told an audience at a September Walrus Talks event that Canada needs to modernize its thinking about water.

“Water, not oil, will define the 21st century,” he said, adding climate change and global conflict will only increase the value of water as a resource.

“If climate change is a shark, water will be its teeth — that’s how we’ll feel it.”

With World Water Day on our minds, here are five things you might not have realized about Canada’s water.

1) Climate Change is Already Threatening Canada’s Water Supplies

“In 2015 the drought spread northward” from California, renowned scientist David Schindler told the Walrus Talks audience in Victoria. “In this part of B.C. you enjoyed a summer of water rationing and red sunset in a grey sky with air quality you normally wouldn’t see outside of Beijing.”

Schindler reminded the audience how much the drought affected emergency teams trying to fight wildfires across the northwest.

“We’re assured by politicians and media that we have lots of water,” Schindler said. “But the water we can see isn’t the sustainable water that we have to work with.”

Schindler cautioned that the delicate balance between precipitation, winter snow pack and glacial runoff provides the foundation for freshwater. That foundation is threatened by the warmer temperatures and drier conditions attributed to climate change. 

2) Canada’s Water Isn’t Being Replenished

Although Canada has about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, it’s estimated that only about one per cent of that resource is replenished each year by rain or snowfall, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

3) 73% of First Nations’ Water Systems At Risk of Contamination

Across Canada, the issue of water is of special concern for indigenous communities.

According to the Council of Canadians, 73 per cent of First Nations’ water systems currently face medium or high-level risk of contamination. That figure is unchanged from 2012.

The group further reports that as of January 2015 there were 1,838 drinking water advisories issued in Canada, some of which date back to the 1990s.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports that in the fall of 2015 alone 120 First Nations communities were issued 168 drinking water advisories.

In good news, the Trudeau government has committed to ending First Nations drinking water advisories in five years and in today’s budget pledged $141.7 million to accomplish that task.

4) Canadians Guzzle Water

According to the federal government, Canada is one of the highest per-capita consumers of water in the world.

About 70 per cent of Canada’s fresh water is used for agriculture and because a high portion of those agricultural products are exported, Canada is the second highest virtual water exporter in the world (virtual water meaning the hidden cost of water used in the production of a product).

Canada’s net virtual water exports (so, exports minus imports) amount to nearly 60 billion cubic metres each year. That figure, according to the Council of Canadians, is based on outdated data and is likely much higher.

Beyond our personal and agricultural consumption, Canada’s energy industry also uses massive amounts of water for oil and gas production.

In 2011, companies in the Alberta oilsands used a reported 370 million cubic metres of water which is more than the city of Toronto, with a population of 2.8 million, uses annually.

It takes approximately 3.1 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from the oilsands, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Fracking also uses massive amounts of water. In B.C. alone gas companies were granted permission to withdraw 33.3 million cubic metres of water through long and short-term water licences. A single fracked well can require between 5,000 and 100,000 cubic metres of water, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

5) Water Protections Gutted Under Conservatives

The Conservative government’s omnibus budget bills removed water protections from the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act as well as requirements to consider environmental impacts of major industrial projects under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Changes to these legal frameworks left 99 per cent of Canada’s freshwater bodies without protection and put thousands of federal scientists and researchers out of work.

Canada has a significant amount of work to do to restore the research and monitoring programs weakened during the last several years.

But in more good news, funding announced in the federal budget today gives some indication that work will be supported at the federal level.

Between 2011/2012 and 2015/2016 an estimated $73.4 million in funding was cut from water programs at Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The budget earmarks $197.1 million over the next five years to be funnelled back to Fisheries and Oceans Canada for ocean and freshwater research. In addition, $81.3 million is allocated for Fisheries and Oceans and Natural Resources Canada to protect 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

Another $3.1 million is allocated to Environment and Climate Change Canada to preserve the Great Lakes.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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