Scitech | Flushing down blue gold

How do we get people to care about conserving water?

Correction appended March 26.

Many Canadians think that we don’t have a problem with drinkable water, but we do. Though Canada holds 7 per cent of the world’s fresh water, it is not immune to the global fresh water shortage. The lack of legalization to protect water and the imminent shortage of clean water both pose a pressing problem for the future.

“We have weak legislation protecting water,” Maggie* told The Daily. “Water legislation is a human right. We need to protect ecosystems and set mandatory limits on extraction for energy production. Setting limits would force these industries to innovate. We have no national water strategy. Every ministry, every industry, deals with water in a different way, so there’s no clear oversight on managing the whole system.”

This lack of integration across industries and fields also seems to prevent us from tackling our water issues in Montreal. In response to these issues, a group of eight women have met weekly since October to organize the fourth annual McGill Sustainability Symposium, which took place on March 13. The symposium focused on water and ways to sustain it, while fostering ideas and connections to address these pressing environmental challenges.

Pascale Biron, a geology professor at Concordia University, expressed the urgent need for a collective approach to manage our rivers. “One of the biggest problems with river management is that we don’t understand natural processes which explain why they erode [river] banks and why they flood regularly.” Biron said we could save millions of dollars over the next 50 years if we allow rivers to have their “freedom space,” meaning space to move naturally and flood.

We currently force rivers within a zone to ensure they don’t move, limiting the space for wetlands to play their natural role. This inevitability causes rivers to deteriorate, making them less valuable. “We keep doing things, because we’re used to doing them a certain way in the past. We need to look at the system with a new perspective – a multidisciplinary perspective,” says Biron.

But what if nothing changes and we continue along the path the same path?

“By 2050, there will be big questions to answer,” says Claude Demers, a private consultant and a previous employee at Hydro-Québec. “The issue is in the summer in Quebec, when it’s very, very hot; very few cubic metres of water are available in Southern Quebec rivers.” Regardless of the shortage in water, people continue to water their grass and fill their pools, further exacerbating the water shortage.

Demers informed The Daily that 90 per cent of people in Quebec live in the south, and most of these people don’t think about what their behaviours are doing to their surrounding environment. Demers goes on to say that while Quebec has advanced hydro technology, the problem is that “we have all of the eggs in one basket.” In Quebec, water is used for just about everything. According to Demers, 99 per cent of electricity is generated using water, and Quebecers are some of the largest consumers of electricity in the world.

“We keep doing things, because we’re used to doing them a certain way in the past. We need to look at the system with a new perspective – a multidisciplinary perspective.”

Pascale Biron, professor at Concordia University

This lack of knowledge is not limited to Quebec. Hanspeter Schreier, a professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in geomorphology and resource management, told The Daily how tragic he finds the way we value bottled water. Bottled water is sold at around $2 a bottle while the city’s fresh drinkable water is priced at 63 cents for every 1000 litres. “Bottled water has a high sodium and nitrate content, which passes food regulations, but would not pass health regulations. Bottled water that has been lying around at room temperature is a perfect specimen for bacteria to grow in, and unlike city water, it is not tested twice a day,” explained Schreier.

Schreier described current Canadian water laws as archaic with their “first in time, first in place” system where the first one to get the permit has water rights. These laws were implemented in the 1880s, and are long due for an update. He advocated for three immediate changes: low-flush toilets, saving and using rain water for outdoor use, and restoring pipe leakages in our city water systems.

Everyday reduction in water consumption is definitely possible, especially when our regular toilets flush 20 litres every time we use it. However, larger amounts of water are needed for other vital essentials, like agriculture, to maintain its mass production.

Greg Gerrits, a farmer who owns Elmridge Farms in the Sheffield Mills area of Nova Scotia, says he has experienced the government hindering farming progress while providing little help to develop a healthier practice. He informed The Daily that he had his water permit taken away in the 1990s. “There were two years in a row that were extremely dry so they decided that they couldn’t renew any permits. So the result was that our permits were left to expire for a year. When I went back to them the next year, they told me point blank that the application process would be difficult.”

Gerrits says he now spends most of his time in the office rather than out in the field. “I spend very little of my time actually farming to meet all of the government demands. They keep coming up with more demands and more record-keeping.”

According to Gerrits, farmers absorb all costs. “We are expected to compete dollar for dollar with the entire world when the environment is being destroyed. People who buy local are paying prices that are based on a world price that doesn’t reflect our Canadian-regulated cost of production.”

So the cost of our water in everyday consumption and in food production doesn’t seem to reflect its real value, which then in turn makes us reckless in how we use this water. It’s difficult to make people appreciate a free commodity. The question then becomes: how can we change people’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours?

Schreier believes that humans will not change easily. “Only in crisis will there be change, that is the human way […] we almost need a good drought to change.”

*Name has been changed

The Daily had mistakenly named a source who stated they wished to be anonymous. The name has been changed to a pseudonym. The article had also previously had a quote from Maggie* stating “Canadians will have a big problem with water soon. We have one of the weakest legislations in protecting water. We don’t prioritize drinking water as a human right”. In fact, they said that “We have weak legislation protecting water.”The Daily regrets the error.