Canadians Needn’t Feel Guilty Over Water Use

Commentary, Water, Andrea Vannahme

In the midst of (finally) a burning hot summer, Canadians might recall how they are often excoriated by certain environmentalist activists for their “excessive” consumption of water. The David Suzuki foundation has been particularly aggressive, repeatedly scolding Canadians for using too much water, and particularly for consuming more water (on average per person) than Europeans. The Suzuki foundation asserts we will “have to reduce” our water consumption, and offers a variety of tips for doing so. For example, they have encouraged people not to wash their cars. They have also suggested installing a toilet dam, but caution that the improper installation of these contraptions can “interfere with the flushing mechanism,” with unpleasant consequences.

The responsible use of natural resources should certainly be encouraged. But reasonable people will wonder if it is really necessary for Canadians to drive around in filthy cars and endure unpleasant bathrooms to drive down our national water consumption. Fortunately, the answer to this question is “no.”

Although it’s true that Canadians use a lot of water, it is also true that Canada has truly enormous reserves available for use. In fact, Canada contains 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater and seven per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources. Only Brazil and Russia, with much larger populations than Canada, possess more renewable freshwater.

In order to determine whether a country’s water use is likely to strain its available resources, it makes no sense to simply measure total water consumption, as the Suzuki foundation generally does in its analyses. Instead, one must compare a country’s water use to the amount of renewable water in that country, in order to determine whether the national consumption level is sustainable in light of available resources.

An analogy illustrates the point.

If all we know about a particular family is that they spend $100,000 a year on consumer goods, we don’t have enough information to say whether this spending level is financially sustainable. Instead, we must learn about the family’s wealth and income. Then we’ll know whether they might run out of money.

If this family has tens of millions of dollars, they needn’t fear they’ll exhaust their financial resources at this level of consumption. With water, a similar comparison between consumption levels and available resources is the only way to determine whether a country such as Canada faces a threat of straining its water resources.

Fortunately, due to Canada’s enormous store of freshwater and its relatively small population, we use a very small percentage of our renewable resources each year. In fact Canada uses a much smaller share of its available freshwater resources than most other countries. Canada currently withdraws less than two per cent of its available renewable resources for consumption each year.

By way of comparison, the United States annually withdraws approximately 17 per cent of its resources. In much of Europe, the situation is even worse. France withdraws 18 per cent of its renewable water each year, and Germany consumes 43 per cent of available renewable resources every year. Canada’s water resources are enormous and our current level of water use is far more sustainable than that of most other countries. Thus, the notion that Canadians face an urgent need to reduce their water consumption is untenable.

It is never a good idea to waste any valuable resource, and governments should avoid policies such as heavy water subsidization which promote the indiscriminate use of water.

However, there is absolutely no “moral” or “ethical” reason for Canadians to forego water consumption for which they are willing to pay. While it is prudent to protect natural resources, there is no virtue in leaving available natural resources underutilized. Canadians are fortunate that their country is blessed with so much water and should use it, as they see fit during this summer season, to make their lives more convenient and pleasant.