Recently, John Carey, a former executive at Environment Canada and top expert on water policy addressed an international conference in Montreal and explained that, scare campaigns to the contrary, Canada is in no danger of running out of freshwater. Carey’s comments provide a useful starting point for a reorientation of policy discourse away from emotional scare tactics and towards the development of rational strategies for managing Canada’s water.
Millions of dollars have been spent on public relations campaigns designed to frighten Canadians and make us feel guilty about using water. For example, Karen Kun of an organization called Waterlution has suggested that it is “unfair” of Canadians to use more water than people in other countries, and that a “water crisis” looms if we persist in our overconsumption. While it is true that per capita water use in Canada is high by international standards, Carey is correct in stating that Canada has far more freshwater than its population is ever likely to use. While Canada makes up just one half of one percent of the world’s population, our country contains 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater, and seven per cent of all renewable freshwater resources.
The abundance of Canada’s water compared to the small needs of its population can be understood by considering that total freshwater withdrawals each year represent less than two per cent of the country’s annual supply of renewable freshwater. By comparison, Canada’s NAFTA trading partners, the United States and Mexico, withdraw 17 and 19 per cent respectively. Many countries withdraw a much larger percentage of their renewable freshwater–Germany withdraws 40 per cent each year. These numbers confirm Carey’s assertion that Canada is not in danger of exhausting its freshwater supplies.
Of course there are regions of the country where water is scarce and which sometimes experience severe draughts. The notion, however, that a national effort at water austerity is required to prevent Canada from “running out of water” is not supported by the facts.
None of this is to say that high level of water consumption is harmless. Carey also pointed out that there are other costs associated with water usage, such as the energy required to treat water and pump it into taps. Canada’s high level of water use requires the consumption of significant energy resources that could otherwise be used elsewhere in the economy or conserved for the future.
The problem is that Canadians are largely insulated from these costs by policies that subsidize the use of water, and create incentives for overconsumption. One egregious example is flat rate water pricing, which still exists in many communities, under which consumers are charged the same fees no matter how much water they use.
The simplest way to ensure that people take all of the relevant costs into account when they make decisions about water consumption is to require them to pay the full cost of processing and delivering the water they use. By charging consumers the full cost of delivering and processing water, we can ensure that individuals bear the costs of consuming lots of water as well as enjoying the benefits. Under these conditions, we can be confident that rational, self-interested decision making will result in the efficient allocation of energy resources, with the appropriate amount being spent on the delivery of water and the appropriate amount remaining available for other purposes.
While targeted subsidies should be used to ensure that low-income Canadians have access to the water they need, there is no reason to shield most Canadians from the full cost of the water they use. This just leads to market distortions and economic inefficiencies – such as overconsumption and the accompanying high levels of energy usage pointed out by John Carey.
Too often, discourse about water policy in Canada is dominated by emotional appeals rather than rational argument. There is no need to scare Canadians with false claims that we are running out of water, or guilt trip them with charges of intergenerational irresponsibility. Instead, we can reduce water use to the appropriate level by simply charging individuals and consumers the full price of water – and then letting them decide how much they want to consume.