Cholera breakouts, water-boiling advisories, death by E.coli, skin lesions, and more can all be caused by poor quality water. These incidents are not uncommon in many areas of the world, including Canada where quality and quantity are delineated primarily by race and geography. There are certain myths in Canadian culture regarding both the quantity and quality of the nation's water, and while many myths can be true in certain circumstances the general myths regarding Canadian water does mask many problems concerning water policies and environmental realities. My question is, how factual are these myths and what purpose do they serve in Canada?
The myth of quality.
There is considerable myth regarding the quality of Canadian water. For the most part, Canadians have access to some of the most potable water in the world. In fact, in Ontario there are some areas where the water is more pure (meaning less polluted by lead) than the unspoiled ice layers in the arctic. This is incredible given that the Arctic ice layers are so old, they predate the onset of atmospheric lead pollution. Further, in Vancouver, water is tested 136,000 times per year from source to tap. However for certain communities in B.C. this privilege regarding water checks, and such high water quality, is not extended. In 2011, the province categorized 82% (a total of 154) of water systems in First Nations reserves as being a high risk for potential contamination, resulting in water-borne illness, to users. In Canada more generally, there were 200 water-related infectious diseases that were considered at outbreak levels between 1974 and 1996. For these outbreaks more than 8000 individuals were confirmed to have been ill because of the consumption of poor quality water. Northern communities and First Nations reserves are often particularly susceptible when it comes to water-based illnesses and poor quantity. For example in 2014 alone, there were 135 drinking water advisories in effect in 91 First Nations communities within Canada. Some of these communities have been under a water boiling advisory for over ten years. Failing to do so can lead to bodily harm, as was witnessed in Attawapiskat and Walkerton where poor quality of water caused skin rashes and infections, as well as gastrointestinal illness and even the death of 7 individuals due to E.coli infection. This is not only undesirable based on what I consider to be important Canadian values of equality and the right to clean drinking water, but it is also economically problematic. Health problems related to poor water quality cost an estimated $300 million every year, which does not include the personal financial loss of individuals who need to take time off work.
So where then does this myth of such high water quality come from in Canada? Well, granted most individuals have access to very high quality water. It seems though that we cannot base our conceptions of Canadian water on just the positive experiences that many people have when accessing water. Is it not true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link? If Canadian water is only as excellent as its poorest quality, then we’re in trouble. The myth of quality however does seem to serve some very distinct purposes in Canada. It allows us to remain oblivious in many ways to those First Nations and Northern communities which have been given a raw deal. Ignorance is bliss, and I’m sure the lack of political will from other Canadian communities in support of those without access to adequate water supplies is only one of many reasons why this myth is continued and fostered.
The myth of quantity.
Canada is usually conceived of as a water rich nation, with abundance and quality aplenty. While this can be seen as true in many ways, there is still extensive myth making and myth preservation regarding Canada’s water quantity and quality. Almost 9% of Canada's total area is covered by fresh water, and this fresh water makes up approximately 7% of the world's renewable water supply. Although this is more than any other single nation on Earth, it is still perhaps not the abundance that one might assume. In addition to this, our water is not where it “needs” to be per say. Approximately 60% of Canada's fresh water drains North towards the Arctic Ocean, while 85% of the population lives in the Southern most regions. What this means is that it takes an incredible amount of energy to bring water to the general population. Moving water southward takes an incredible amount of energy, and there is certainly an associated carbon emission to this move. The carbon emissions add to global climate change, which directly impacts Canadian water. For example, Canadian lake levels are expected to decline in both inland lakes and Ontario's four Great Lakes, as more moisture evaporates due to warmer temperatures and less ice cover. Our great lakes could disappear the same way the Aral Sea, Hongjiannao Lake, and Lake Chad all have. However with the myth of abundance these potentialities tend to go unnoticed by much of the Canadian public. It’s not uncommon when talking about Canadian water scarcity for someone to chuckle and remind the “bearer of bad news” that there are so many lakes in Manitoba most are unnamed.
People however may take notice of water quantity decreases when issues of the economy arise. Climate change, and the way it impacts the abundance of water has significant potential economic outcomes, since Canada is the third largest producer of hydroelectricity (behind only China and Brazil). With less water there is a risk of there being less hydropower for national use and international sale. This could further increase global climate change with the potential reliance on less “green” energy sources. The change in water quantity would also pose a problem for Canadian agribusiness as droughts and unpredictable weather decrease profits.
One “bright side” of climate change for water and economy is that melting glaciers may open up new modes of economic development for Canada and other countries in the world. The Arctic Ocean, which has been greatly affected by global change (evident through glacial retreat and deglaciation) could hold off-shore oil and/or natural gas and could be a proverbial economic cash-cow for Canada should it be declared part of Canadian sovereign territory – an issue of much politicking.
But what else is lost? There is the obvious economic and physical water loss due to climate change, but what about the social and cultural significance that water holds for Canada historically and currently. The fur trade, colonial settlement, and life structures of Canada’s First Nations were all dependent on the navigational ease of our waterways. Traditionally, cities have been built on rivers and other waterways due to their functionality and beauty (Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston, London – the list goes on and on). Some of Canada’s most internationally known pieces of art feature water as a focal point, and in fact there is a considerable amount of contemporary music that shows reverie for Canada’s major bodies of water. With changes to Canada’s water quantity – which seems to be overlooked due to the myth of abundance – how will Canadian culture also change? How will we envision and connect with our own history?
This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.