Water is the Big Issue Many Politicians Ignore

Media Appearances, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

You get a sense of Canada’s critical water problems looking at the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield south of Jasper, Alta.

It is shrivelling, like a grape in sunlight. The glacier’s retreat is just another indication that our climate is changing and getting warmer. The fight over how much humans contributed to that change has obscured an important issue: Water shortages threaten to pinch our economy and pit provinces against each other.

“We can no longer take our extensive water supplies for granted,” says an Environment Canada report titled A Federal Perspective on Water Quality Issues. The Canadian Press obtained the 21-page draft report last month under the Access to Information Act.

The report forecasts droughts in the Prairies and ground-water shortages in British Columbia and the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River basin. Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, fell to its lowest level on record last September.

Sounds like serious stuff. But few politicians have mentioned the issue in the federal election campaign.

In a sense, that’s par for the course for both Liberals and Conservatives in Ottawa. The Tories promised a national water strategy in last fall’s throne speech, but so far, critics say, they haven’t delivered. Both Liberals and Conservatives were tardy about publishing annual reports required by law that show how water supplies are used and maintained. In August, the last assessment posted on Environment Canada’s website was from 2005-06.

As well, as the Brandon Sun points out in a cogent editorial, Ottawa is not exactly forthcoming in informing us about water matters. The Sun says the Environment Canada report warning about a water crisis was drafted in December 2007, but was only made available last month because The Canadian Press demanded it.

Earlier this year, says the paper, a major report from Natural Resources Canada was subtly posted in an obscure section of the department’s website late on a Friday afternoon.

“The quiet publication of the report,” says the Sun, “came despite years of research, the input of more than 100 experts and – amazingly – the hiring of a public relations firm at a cost of $50,000 to plan the document’s public release.”

A Health Canada report, Human Health in a Changing Climate: A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity was supposed to be released in the spring, but the government didn’t make it public until July 31 – again, through quiet posting on a departmental website.

“It is a matter of dire urgency that the public be apprised of climate change concerns and that governments act on them,” said Colin Soskolne, of the University of Alberta, one of the contributors to the report.

At the time he was quoted in August, he had yet to receive a hard copy of the report.

The Environment Canada report made public through the efforts of The Canadian Press says climate change and a growing population are draining our resources of water.

Canada has a fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, but only seven per cent of it is renewable. Most of it comes from ice-age glaciers, like the Athabasca, or underground aquifers.

But federal government data on groundwater reserves, says the report, “is sparse and often inadequate.” The United States has spent more than a decade mapping its underground water reserves. Canada shares aquifers with America, but “our lack of data places Canada at a strategic disadvantage for bilateral negotiations with the U.S.”

Canadians have been adamant that we not sell water to America, but demands for it could increase substantially if supplies south of the border continue to dwindle. We could be bombarded with pleas from “our best friend and trading partner.”

Daniel Klymchuk, in a report for the Frontier Centre of Public Policy, has argued Manitoba could earn US$1.33 billion a year by simply exporting one per cent of its water to the U.S.

In a new book, Dry Spring, Chris Wood says the U.S. is headed for hard, dry times. The Colorado, once one of North America’s great rivers, is much diminished. Major U.S. aquifers may be exhausted in the next 25 years. Mexico City is sinking as its 20 million residents lap up the water below it.

At the same time, Canada is not treating its water appropriately. A spring report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said 1,760 communities in Canada had a boil-water advisory in effect, including 679 in Ontario and 530 in B.C. Manitoba had 59 communities in this category in mid-March, including Anola, which has had a drinking water warning for nearly eight years.

The Environment Canada report says the federal government should take a more hands-on role in managing the nation’s water, which is now largely done by provinces.

But many Ottawa politicians don’t seem to be interested.

Meanwhile, the Athabasca Glacier continues to shrink.