If you’re reading this in Canada, chances are good that you can go to your kitchen and pour yourself a glass of cold, clean drinking water straight from the tap. If you’ve had a stressful day, you can run yourself a nice warm bath.
That’s not the case in some parts of the world, where a woman may have to walk many kilometres with her children just to fill a bucket with murky water, which she must then carry back over the parched landscape. Canadians who have travelled outside of the tourist resorts in nearby Mexico know that abundant and clean water is never taken for granted there.
In the U.S., climate change is expected to reduce flows in major rivers, including the Rio Grande and Colorado, by as much as 20 per cent this century, according to an Interior Department report. With an increase in droughts over the past several decades, these areas are already experiencing challenges in supplying growing populations with water for drinking, irrigation, power generation and recreation.
We often take our abundant and clean water for granted here in Canada, but we shouldn’t. To begin, climate change is altering precipitation patterns, increasing drought in some areas and flooding in others, and it’s reducing the amount of water stored in glaciers, snow packs, lakes, wetlands and groundwater.
At the same time, demand for water and threats to clean supplies are both increasing, as our populations grow and as industry, especially in the energy sector, continues to require greater amounts. Despite technological improvements, the tar sands use considerable amounts of water and pollute rivers and groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires massive amounts of water to extract natural gas from shale deposits, and the process is known to contaminate water supplies. Nuclear power plants also require vast amounts of water.
The consequences of water shortages and contamination are severe and numerous. Many of us remember the tragedy in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000, when seven people died and as many as 2,300 became ill after drinking from wells containing high levels of E. coli bacteria. It’s an issue that many First Nations people here have to deal with every day. In fact, around the world, water-related illness is one of the leading causes of death, mainly in the developing world. Health authorities estimate that unclean water kills three million people a year, including close to two million children who die of diarrhea because of bad water. Worldwide, researchers estimate that as many as half of the people in hospital are there because of waterborne diseases.
Water shortages also mean less is available for irrigation, which has a severe impact on our ability to grow food. University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler has argued that “Water scarcity will become one of the most important economic and environmental issues of the 21st century in the western prairie provinces.” A Senate report last year concluded that summer flows in many Alberta rivers are already down by about 40 per cent from where they were a century ago.
We must also consider what will become of people as water becomes more scarce and contaminated. Along with the other issues around climate change, this could trigger massive refugee crises.
Fortunately, solutions exist. As individuals, we can conserve water. Canadians use twice as much water per capita as Europeans and many times more than people in most parts of the world. By raising awareness of our consumption and by installing low-flow plumbing and using landscaping that doesn’t require much water, we can all make a difference.
Governments have a huge role to play as well. To start, metering and disincentives for high water use can help with conservation. But most importantly, governments must tackle the challenge of climate change. Along with the benefits of protecting clean water supplies and human health, addressing climate change will also strengthen the economy. An analysis conducted last year by the Western Climate Initiative showed that addressing climate change and fostering clean-energy solutions could lead to cost savings of about US$100 billion by 2020 for the Initiative’s member states and provinces.
We can’t live without clean water. That’s something we all have to think about.”