The Myth of Abundance: Why Canada Doesn’t Have As Much Water As It Thinks
Dr. Romila Verma is a Research Associate with the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (www.cielap.org) and teaches Water Resource Management in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto.
People rarely associate Canada with water shortages. And why would they? Our country is fortunate to have much of the earth’s freshwater in the form of numerous lakes, rivers, glaciers and groundwater. But is it time for a reality check? The water supply for the city of Toronto, drawn from the seemingly vast Lake Ontario, is hardly typical of the water situation across Canada. For example, when one considers the imminent water shortages faced by smaller communities in Southern Alberta, it becomes clear that there may be broader challenges on the horizon for Canada.
A recent study conducted for the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy analyzed the impact of daily rainfall and temperature on daily water demand in Toronto between the months of May and August. The study found that regardless of changes in temperature and precipitation, daily water consumption never fell below 500 megalitres. However, for every degree the temperature increased, an additional 13.79 megalitres of water were consumed every day.
Considered alongside rapid population growth and urbanization, aging infrastructure, and now climate change, this finding highlights the potential for substantial pressure on municipal water supplies in years to come. While extensive research has been conducted on water pollution, wastewater treatment and aging infrastructure, less has been done to determine the impact of climate change on urban water availability and demand. This is especially concerning given that an ever growing percentage of the Canadian population now live in urban areas.
Back in 1989, John E. Lewis authored an article for the Canadian Water Resources Association that examined the potential impacts of climate change on Canada’s water supply. Lewis predicted that rising temperatures would lead to increased water loss via evaporation and transpiration. The small projected increase in rainfall expected under some climate change models is unlikely to compensate for this water loss. In Southern Ontario, there is evidence that Lewis’ predictions may be coming true, considering that summer lawn watering restrictions are now a fact of life here. In Southern Alberta, there is already little doubt that municipal water supplies are shrinking. Share the Water, A 2009 report published by Ecojustice and WaterMatters, notes that some communities in the region may face substantial water shortages within a decade or less.
We need to begin thinking seriously about developing a comprehensive national water policy and governance model, while at the same time committing new funds toward enhancing public awareness, spearheading conservation initiatives and integrating water education into our schools. Most importantly, Canadians need to realize that while our water is envied by much of the world, it is ultimately a finite resource. Both professional management and a personal commitment to conservation will be necessary for it to last us into the future.