The Importance of Water
Water is a prerequisite for all life on this planet. We depend on water directly for our survival and health. It nourishes the food that we eat and the other resources we depend on. Water is important to our society as a means of transportation and as a setting and a vehicle for recreation. Humans and the rest of the species on this earth have a bleak future without clean, accessible water. For this reason, water should be considered sacred and everyone should have an equal right to access the benefits it provides. Water should be considered as a basic human right. Ninety seven percent of Canadians expressed their support for water to be recognized as a human right in a 2004 Ipsos-Reid poll.
Giving Water Further Consideration
One would like to think that a country like Canada would be forward thinking enough to have a national policy for such a necessary resource. However; Stewardship of our water is currently covered by a patchwork of legislation under various ministerial portfolios. A comprehensive water act would be a great way for the federal government to show leadership and provide assistance with the process of transitioning our country toward common goals. Our provinces and municipalities must develop similar initiatives to protect water at a regional and local level.
In Business, in Households
Many individual Canadians have concerns about our water, but few feel empowered enough to make a difference. Many of us point fingers at industry while discussing pollution and supply issues, when we also need to be critical of our own behaviour. Homemakers and business owners are capable of making changes that produce results without a government mandate. This involves keeping ourselves educated and informed as well as putting more thought and deliberation into the decisions we make on a daily basis.
Threats to Our Water
Threats to our water fit into four major categories: commodification of our water and our water services, alteration of the integrity of our hydrosphere, pollution, and invasive species. Most environmental and social justice issues related to our water fit into one or more of these categories.
Commodification of our Water and Water Services
The movement to commodify water and water services is gaining momentum. Those that seek to commodify our water are motivated by profit. Private water service providers are not owned by the local people, so they are not bound by the will or the interest of the community. Bottling, diverting, and exporting water out of drainage basins depletes local water supplies. Why do we permit companies to hoard this water for their own benefit. Water exports and the privatization of water services can be very difficult to reverse under legally binding trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATS. We must be cautious of commodification to keep water in the control of the local people.
Alteration of the Integrity of our Hydrosphere
Canada is home to 7% of the world’s accessible fresh water. We are the stewards of this precious resource. Unfortunately, water is being extracted, dammed, or diverted from our waterways. The effects of climate change are altering rainfall patterns and drying up our lakes and rivers. North American industries and households over consume water, exacerbating the problem. Altering the hydrosphere disturbs the balance of the aquatic ecosystems that we depend on for our health and livelihood.
There are many types of waterborne pollutants that come from various sources. Among these are toxic chemicals and heavy metals that come from our industries, landfills, and households. Tests performed on household and industrial chemicals during their research and development are often limited in scope. While some companies take more progressive measures to test their products, it is impossible for them to test for all potential hazards. New ones are continuously being discovered.
One of the greater concerns today is with regard to the synergistic effects of combinations of chemicals. Synergistic effects can be described as the effects of two or more substances which is greater than the effect of each individual substance on it own. Chemicals that are released into our water independently can later combine forces to create more harmful effects. There are so many chemicals being used today that it would be virtually impossible to test every potential combination.
It is always wise to err on the side of caution, because the destructive properties of many of these chemicals will not be understood until it is too late.
Inadequate sanitation is an issue that we often associate with the third world, but it is still a problem here in Canada, one of the most prosperous and water rich nations in the world. In May of 2000, our nation's worst-ever outbreak of E. coli bacteria contamination occurred in Walkerton, Ontario. Seven people died and 2,300 others became ill. While the province of Ontario has since followed many of the recommendations of the Walkerton tainted-water inquiry, there are still abominable sanitation problems in hundreds of First Nations communities across Ontario and the rest of the country. The water services of these reserves fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government rather than the provinces.
Non-native species have adverse effects on native species in our waterways. They often displace local species by competing with them for food and habitat. The problems with invasive species in the Great Lakes are the result of ships discharging untreated ballast water. Many of these ships travel all over the world and house their own distinct ecosystems, an assortment of species from a variety of locations. In other places in North America, untreated water is being diverted from one drainage basin to another. Aquaculture facilities have been responsible for introducing numerous invasive species. On the west coast of North America, escaped farm-raised Atlantic salmon have been documented spawning in pacific coastal rivers. The aquaculture industry is currently experimenting with genetically modified fish. Their contamination of native gene pools could prove to be catastrophic.
The good news is that there are many ways that we can take action for our water.
How do we voice our political concerns? Write to politicians, organize letter writing campaigns, phone their offices, or even better, get to know some of them and have a down-to-earth discussion with them about these matters. Or better yet, become politically involved to create change first hand. Writing to our governments is easy. Most government offices now recognize email as official correspondence and respond to comments in writing if a home address is provided and a response is requested. I try to keep up the habit of writing one letter per week to a politician regarding an issue that is on my mind. It usually takes me no longer than a few minutes. These letters are most likely to be read if they are concise and get right to the point.
Change can also be created on an entirely grassroots level. Joining a local watershed group can be an empowering direction to take because these groups often achieve visible and tangible results. An initiative as simple as organizing a garbage cleanup in your local stream can be a rewarding experience and can make you feel better about your community. We can use our power as consumers and alter our routines as homemakers to nurture our water rather than destroy it. All that it requires is a little added thought and deliberation in our daily lives.
There is a revolution going on in the business world today. Some call it the next industrial revolution. The Cradle to Cradle design paradigm, created by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, is an example of an initiative of positive change. Some industries have started to work within the framework of eco-effectiveness, the Cradle to Cradle strategy which seeks to design industrial systems that emulate the healthy abundance of nature. Its central design principle, waste equals food, can be applied in business, government, or the household. Check out the Cradle to Cradle design paradigm online at http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm
I would like to encourage the readers of this site to consider some of the suggestions below. Please to do not feel limited to the suggestions I have provided. There are so many issues related to water, and so many ways to make a difference, that I am sure I have missed many important ones.
I have listed some potential solutions to help address the threats to our water below. The political solutions are marked with dashes (-), while the solutions that can be tackled on an individual level as a consumer or homemaker are marked with an asterisk (*).
Commodification of our Water and Water Services
- Stop or heavily regulate the bottling of water for profit, especially when it is for export out of a major drainage basin. Smaller quantities of water could be bottled and stored for emergency or disaster situations.
- Stop the privatization of water services.
- Re-negotiate trade agreements to respect water as a human right rather than a commodity.
* Boycott bottled water. This is a scam. The testing and quality standards used in most municipalities are greater than those used for bottled water. The cheap plastics used to bottle water leach toxins into it, such as antimony. Generally the water out of your tap is of better quality and is available for a fraction of the cost. If you are bothered by the chlorine taste in your water, try leaving it out overnight before you drink it. Some of the chlorine will evaporate.
* Fight the Privatization of water services in your community.
Alteration of the Integrity of our Hydrosphere
- Stop water diversions from one drainage basin to another.
- Stop the bottling of water, especially for consumption out of the local drainage basin.
- Stop the expansion of shipping corridors. Dredging of the St. Clair River has lead to greater volumes of water flowing out of the upper Great Lakes.
- Encourage the forestry industry to investigate ways in which it can better protect our water supplies.
- Create incentives for water conservation and/or penalties for excessive consumption.
- Reduce our CO2 emissions to slow global warming and prevent climate change.
- New hydroelectric projects should work with the natural flow cycles of our rivers.
- Stop the development of wetlands.
* Purchase fewer products that require vast quantities of water during manufacturing. Oil from the Alberta oil sands requires the displacement of vast quantities of water and soil. Computer chip and automobile manufacturing are other industries which depend on the use of massive quantities of water.
* Conserve water in your home or business.
* Reduce your CO2 emissions to slow global warming and climate change.
- Expand existing and create new biomonitoring programs for testing chemical pollutants. We also need more thorough testing of chemicals during their development.
- Ban the use or sale of harmful chemicals, especially ones for which safer alternatives exist.
- Implement hazardous waste disposal and recycling programs in every community.
- Provide adequate water sanitation to all Canadians.
- Stop the development of nuclear power generation. There is no solution for dealing with the nuclear waste that requires long term storage. Many have suggested burying it in the ground. If this occurs, it is likely to contaminate our groundwater.
* Avoid using chemical cleaners in your home or business. Cleaning products containing natural ingredients can be purchased at your local health food store. A more cost effective alternative is to make your own cleaning products at home. A great source of information on this subject is a book called Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan.
Highly toxic products, such as drain openers containing sodium hydroxide (lye), create more problems than they solve. Most plumbers will advise you against using drain openers because they are so corrosive that they lower the lifespan of your pipes. Lye dissolves skin and tissue upon contact. It is a product so dangerous that it is a hazard to keep in our homes. Why would we want to taint our water with it?
* Reduce your use of pharmaceutical drugs. Detectable quantities of pharmaceuticals such as contraceptives, painkillers, antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, blood-pressure drugs, anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol drugs, and antidepressants are being detected in our waterways. Exposure to these drugs has led to negative effects such as the feminization of male fish and could have human health implications. Seek out natural alternatives and use them whenever possible.
* Stop or reduce your purchase of products that contain hazardous waste.
* Do not throw hazardous waste into your regular garbage. Batteries, used fluorescent light bulbs, household chemicals, and electronics should be brought to your local hazardous waste depot. If your municipality does not yet offer these services, many charitable organizations or private businesses in your area may accept these items.
* Buy local organic foods. These are healthier for our soils and water and YOU!
* Avoid use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
* Lower or eliminate your use of salt on your walkway or driveway in the winter.
* Cap your well if it is not in use. Many contaminants enter groundwater through uncapped wells.
* Think about the "waste equals food" principle when making everyday decisions. Try to create waste that is usable for some other purpose. Try to create waste that is biodegradable or recyclable.
- We must require ships entering our waterways to treat their ballast water. Invasive species are already a huge problem in the great lakes, so this should be done before entering each of the lakes to prevent further invasions. Michigan has passed legislation that will begin requiring ships to treat their ballast water beginning in 2007. Wisconsin and Minnesota are considering similar requirements.
- Canals are built to connect waterways. These facilitate transportation, but also provide a corridor for invasive species. New canals, especially ones that cross drainage basins, should be avoided.
- Water diversions should not be taking place to begin with, but if they are to occur to deal with threats of flooding, we must demand that the water is filtered and treated beforehand to kill all organisms present in the water.
- The practice of farming non-native fish should be stopped.
* When transporting your boat to another waterway, scrub the hull down with soap and water unless your boat has already been out of the water for 7 days or more.
* Use only native species of live bait when fishing, and do not dump your bait into the water.
* Boycott farmed fish. They contain higher levels of mercury than wild fish, which make them worse for your health. Avoid eating fish in restaurants because the kitchen is not always aware of precisely where the fish came from.
Getting to Know Water
Getting to know your local watershed is a great way to get involved. Learning about the geography and ecology of a watershed allows local residents to make informed, objective decisions. Recreation in local waterways allows residents to form personal connections to them. This leads to a greater commitment to environmental responsibility, especially among children. A recent study completed in the US has concluded that children that play out in nature are more likely to become environmentally responsible adults. So get out! Swim, paddle, sail, or fish, and bring your children along with you.
Making a Difference
Making a difference is possible, but it requires the efforts and co-operation of many different groups. Governments, businesses, individuals, and national and local not for profit groups must collaborate toward achieving common goals. By working together, we can ensure that our water remains pure and plentiful for future generations.
Campaigns that Deserve your Support
These are national campaigns that are working to create positive results for everyone in this vast country. Your support is greatly appreciated. Don't forget to also support local initiatives in your community.
The Council of Canadians - Water Campaign
The Council of Canadians is a government and corporate watchdog who has run some highly influential campaigns for over 20 years. Recently, they have been campaigning for the Canadian Government to support the right to water. Although the recent budget set aside some funding for cleanups and water treatment, Canada is the only country that has consistently voted against the right to water at the United Nations. Recognizing the right to water in this country would limit the commodification and export of water, while holding polluters accountable. The Council is also encouraging Canada to develop and implement a comprehensive national water policy. Visit the water campaign page of their website and/or email the Prime Minister
Environmental Defence - Toxic Nation Campaign
Environmental Defence is an organization that is committed to protecting the environment and human health. Their Toxic Nation Campaign is lobbying the government to introduce tighter regulations on toxic chemicals. We are exposed to toxic chemicals that are released into the environment by sources such as industry and agriculture. Surprisingly, another source of these chemicals is everyday household products. While there are resources available to assist you in limiting your exposure to toxic chemicals in your own home (link #1, link #2, link #3), individual citizens should not be required to spend their leisure time researching chemicals to make informed decisions about their safety. The onus should be on government to regulate these chemicals. We are all exposed to them when they make their way into our water. Environmental Defence is using the results of their research to urge the government to meet international standards for the regulation of toxic chemicals for the health and safety of Canadians. Sign their petition to strengthen the regulation of toxic chemicals.