Commentary | Our ways of using water must change

Think back to your first introduction to the hydrological cycle. It seemed so simple, right? We were all assured that this cycle would unfailingly provide us with the fresh drinkable water we needed. Our identity as Canadians is built on the assumption that we are among the most water-rich nations in the world. Although Canadian environmental policies still reflect this assumption, it is far from the reality faced by many communities across Canada today.

Canada’s fragmented water policies and high per capita consumption are misinformed by the perpetuation of this myth of water abundance. Canada is commonly cited as being endowed with roughly one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. We have the Great Lakes, right? What this figure hides is the distinction between freshwater and renewable freshwater resources. Canada in fact only has 6.5 per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources. Furthermore, 60 per cent of this renewable freshwater flows north, away from where the Canadian population is concentrated. Turns out we’re not as water-rich as we like to think.

Truth be told, our knowledge of Canada’s water is hazy at best. Since the ’90s, the Canadian government has systematically cut back its funding of research and data collection on water resources. There is little monitoring of actual water consumption: on the island of Montreal, for instance, less than 50 per cent of homes have meters. Industrial and agricultural sectors, both major water users with considerable political clout, have had few restrictions placed on their water consumption. Compounding these major gaps in our knowledge of water resources, jurisdictional fragmentation between the federal and provincial governments has rendered unclear who is ultimately responsible for water governance.

The shortcomings of this patchwork approach to water governance is perhaps best exemplified through the deplorable management of freshwater resources in Canadian First Nations communities. The history of governmental marginalization of First Nations populations has resulted in these communities carrying a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation. An assessment performed by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 2001 found a significant risk to the quality of drinking water in three- quarters of First Nations water provisioning systems. As of February 2008, 93 reserves are on boil-water advisories; some of these advisories have lasted years. Landsdowne House in Ontario, for example, has been on a boil water advisory for 13 years.

We don’t have to look much further to see how poor water governance in Canada has had devastating consequences for communities and ecosystems. Large-scale hydroelectric projects have resulted in the impoundment (damming) and diversion of most of Quebec’s major rivers; vast quantities of toxic water produced through tar sands extraction sit just metres from the mouth of the Athabasca river. Add to this the projected impacts of climate change, and it seems as though these issues are too large to tackle.

The good news is that there is a strong community seeking water justice within Canada. It’s important that we acknowledge these issues are a reality, but we must move forward and focus on innovative and meaningful modes of change. One means of working toward a soft-path water future – toward a global re-evaluation of our way of using water – is to create a space for dialogue between students, researchers, and activists. In an attempt to transition from knowledge to action, we invite you to participate in “Uncharted Waters,” a three-day interactive and interdisciplinary conference from March 26-28 that seeks to bridge the gap between academia and activism on water issues. Visit for more information.

Dana Holtby is a U2 Environment and IDS student. Rosie Simms is a U2 Environment student. They are the coordinators for the Uncharted Waters conference. Send them a wave of support at