Dear Prime Minister,
Further to my last letter to you…
Canada has a lot of water.
Twenty per cent of global freshwater resources. Except more than half isn’t useful. Environment and Climate Change Canada tells us water needs to be in a particular place and of a certain quality for it to be useful. So, while water may be renewable, it can also be scarce with lengthy cycle times.
The 7% of renewable freshwater we are left with is still a lot of water and it seems improbable, bordering on impossible, that we will ever have a water crisis.
But maybe it’s not as improbable as we think.
Avoiding a water crisis requires long-term thinking implemented years in advance. It requires proper conservation and management policies and a culture that has a deep and real respect for water.
I don’t think we are that culture.
While 45% of Canadians – down from last year’s 49% – view freshwater as Canada’s most important natural resource by far (in the words of the 2017 RBC Water Attitudes study) our actions say otherwise.
We are wasteful and inefficient.
Wasteful because the average Canadian uses 769 litres of water daily, nearly five and half times more than the highest minimum estimate of water consumption required for survival (as estimated by two separate studies).
Inefficient because, in a 2007 study, Jonathan Chenoweth reported that the Netherlands use only 82 litres per day and the UK uses only 95 litres per day.
If other developed countries with high-standards of living can make it on 1/8 of the water we use daily, why can’t we?
Water is woven into our daily lives – through our worship; our hobbies; and our economy.
Sixty per cent of Canadians know that an abundance of fresh water is “very important” to our economy (RBC study again).
Water’s economic significance is so innate to Canada that we’ve stopped thinking about. Maybe that’s why there was a 10% decrease in the percentage of Canadians that recognized water’s economic importance.
But we need to start thinking about water again. Not in an abstract “we all love water” way, but in a concrete way attached to policies and management practices.
Water will never stop having economic significance which leads me to believe we’ll always want to have an abundance of water…which also leads me to ask:
What are we doing?
Globally, individual consumption accounts for only 10% of total fresh water usage. At 70% agriculture is the largest user, followed by industry (including the energy sector) at 20%.
Freshwater allows us to maintain our diet of non-renewable sources of energy:
- We use water to extract coal, uranium, oil and gas.
- We use water to cool our power plants.
- We use water to transport our fuel (at significant risk to the environment I might add, though I shouldn’t have to remind anyone).
Our pursuit of clean energy uses water. Water is needed to irrigate the fields of corn and sugar cane that are used for ethanol and fuel pellets.
According to the United Nations World Water Development Report of 2016, if the global community does not change its current methods of fresh water management, in 15 years there won’t be enough water to go around.
A global community using so much water in the present that there won’t be enough water in the future is called a water deficit, and by 2030 we may be looking at a 40% deficit.
That takes us until 2030, but what about 2050?
Multiple sources expect the world population to reach 9.3 billion by 2050. With an increase in population comes an increase in food and power demand and an increase in water for irrigation, extraction and cooling.
This interconnectivity, coined the Food, Water and Energy Nexus, means that what effects one will undoubtedly effect the others.
Even with all this evidence we continue to look to the end of the next year when we should be looking to the end of the next century and the century after that.
We disable ourselves with short-term thinking.
And in the short term there is no room for preservation practices or proper management because those seem like barriers and terms that environmentalists use to halt “progress”.
Preservation practices and proper management are not barriers. They’re safeguards. They are best practices and better ways of doing things in industry, energy, agriculture and the home.
- Better ways of treating waste water so that it can be re-used more efficiently.
- Better water treatment methods that heal the environment as opposed to harming it.
- Better ways of packaging and production so that less water is used in the process.
- Better ways of irrigation.
Author Seth Godin talks in his blog about the metaphorical second-to-last-tree and the person who cuts it down. He asks, “Was it made clear that the social and societal costs of cutting down a tree were severe, so severe that no one would even contemplate cutting down the last tree?”
If we continue our current path we are going to end up staring down that second-to-last tree and swinging the axe with a terrifying nonchalance. Then, and only then, will we look up at that last tree and realize that we have made a grave and terrible error and that we are indeed facing our own demise. But instead of a tree maybe it will be a dry lake-bed, or a desert or an empty well.
Seth Godin also says, “culture is the most powerful tool we have to change behaviour”.
We need to create a long-term culture that loves water. We need to create a culture where what we are doing aligns with what we should be doing.
Otherwise we’ll repeat history.
“If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society,” writes Jared Diamond in a 1995 article about the demise of Easter Island, “how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse?”
We can’t keep feigning ignorance. We, as the owners of 20% of global freshwater, need to lead the way.
We can start in our homes by re-using water from the kitchen in the garden, by creating yards that are water-friendly, by not buying bottled water, and investing in home treatment if the quality of our water is not adequate…and we need a government that supports us, with a leader that supports a positive shift in culture.
Are you that leader?
The Young Idealist