Does Canada have enough water? Depends who you ask

The Bow River flows through the valley as seen in this 2009 Lake Louise, Canada summer morning photo. George Rose/Getty Images

TORONTO – Is Canada running out of clean freshwater? A new report, which states pointedly “no,” is a cause for concern for one of Canada’s preeminent environmentalists.

The new report from the Fraser Institute – which describes itself as a non-partisan think tank – said that Canada is in no danger of running out of freshwater.

Looking at the data, Canada appears to be a water-rich nation.

Canada has access to as much as 20 per cent of the world’s stock of surface freshwater.

In 2011, Canada had the fourth-largest supply of renewable freshwater in the world, according to data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Joel Wood, the report’s author, said that on a per-capita basis, Canada ranks fairly high in terms of water usage (9th in the world). However, Wood said that Canadians are consuming a fraction of the freshwater available (1.6 per cent).

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Wood said that “although the annual supply of renewable freshwater in southern Canada has declined between 1971 and 2004, at the current rate of decline it would take over 300 years before annual renewable freshwater ran out. This is not something to worry about.”

The report’s assertion that we need not worry about Canada’s supply of freshwater is a cause for concern for the Council of Canadians, which describes itself as a progressive advocacy group.

“If you were to drain us and deplete the stock then yes we have a lot,” said activist Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chair of Washington-based Food and Water Watch.

However, said Barlow, if you look at the amount of available freshwater Canada has – that is the water we can use that doesn’t deplete the stock – it amounts to only 6.5 per cent of the world’s available water stock.

The World Resources Institute defines renewable freshwater as “water that is fully replaced in any given year through rain and snow that falls on continents and islands and flows through rivers and streams to the sea.”

And according to the FAO, “not all natural freshwater, surface water or groundwater, is accessible for use.”

Because it would take such a long time for lake water to renew – 191 years in Lake Superior according to Statistics Canada – most water contained in lakes is considered non-renewable.

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Wood said that the majority of Canada’s major sources of freshwater are in the far north.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Canadians (98 per cent according to StatsCan) live in population centres along the Canada-U.S. border. And it’s in these southern population centres that available freshwater is declining.

However, stated Wood, “if needed, infrastructure can be built to tap into the abundant annual supplies of renewable freshwater in Canada’s sparsely populated north.”

“This notion that everything is fine is very dangerous,” Barlow told Global News. “It’s part of this notion that water is an infinite resource and therefore we don’t have to take care of it.”

“We are running out of available water. We are a planet in crisis,” said Barlow.

Barlow said the Harper government’s last budget gutted legislation that offered protection for Canada’s freshwater sources, including the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Act and the Environmental Assessment Act.

“There were 3,000 environmental assessment processes cancelled when the budget passed,” Barlow said as an example.

“The places that have water, like Canada, have a moral obligation to take care of it. We’re doing just the opposite,” Barlow said.

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