How do we avert a thirsty future?
Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water – the sustainer of life and livelihoods – is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s capacity for providing renewable freshwater lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.
Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Canada, which is the Saudi Arabia of the freshwater world, is fortunate to be blessed with exceptional water wealth. But more than half of the global population lives in conditions of water distress.
The struggle for water is exacerbating effects on the earth’s ecosystems. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.
If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.
The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development, with water at the centre of that challenge. The world can ill-afford to waste time – or water – to find ways to avert a thirsty future.
Canada: The future of our most critical resource
One commodity occupies a central place in the day-to-day lives of Canadians more than any other, and though it’s assumed to be in unfettered abundance, water is a resource that cannot be taken for granted.
Where we are now
Number of people on Earth living in water-scarce regions
Number of national drinking-water guidelines published by Health Canada since 1968
Number of those guidelines that are consistently applied across all 13 provinces and territories
Canada’s share of the world’s renewable supply of fresh water
Level by which phosphorus in the St. Lawrence River exceeded federal guidelines (2010-2012)
Decrease (1970-2005) in the summer flow of the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray
Number of drinking-water advisories in effect last month in
120 indigenous communities across Canada
Number of years that Neskantaga First Nation, near the proposed Ring of Fire mining site in Northern Ontario, has been under a boil-water advisory
Estimated cost of meeting federal water standards for First Nations communities
in billions of dollars
Estimated increase in global water demand by 2050
Estimated share of waterborne contamination in Canada that involves non-municipal supply systems, largely in rural or remote areas
Number of national drinking-water standards that can be legally enforced.
Canada is the only G8 member with none.
Canada’s water is in crisis
Canada’s water is in crisis. This is partly because of federal neglect of water and water-related climate issues. We face increasingly damaging industrial, mining and agricultural water contamination; increases in flooding brought about by inappropriate land use and development in flood plains and headwaters; and ever-more-damaging extremes of flood and drought brought about by climate changes to which we have contributed by changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
In addition to the contamination threat, flood and drought crises along with related storm damage and forest fires are hammering every region of the country, as climate change demonstrates its destructive nature. Economic losses due to the prairie drought of 2000-04 exceeded $4-billion and the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Manitoba floods of 2011-14 exceeded $11-billion. The cost of one day of heavy rainfall in July, 2013, in Toronto was almost $1-billion. The Prairies and B.C. have been hit by drought yet again in 2015 and this time it restricted both food and oil production, resulted in massive wildfires and even affected recreational fishing.
These issues are restricting economic growth in Canada, limiting agricultural and energy production and destroying infrastructure. Appalling water-quality and health conditions are common in First Nations and other downstream communities, putting them on an infamous ‘third world’ footing – unacceptable in a Group of Seven country. Our federal response to this national crisis shows little foresight, as water monitoring and science have been cut over several decades, and we stand out in the developed world for having neither a national flood-forecast system nor drinking-water standards.
More from the Headwaters series
- Let’s make groundwater an issue of national security
- Unresolved water advisories creating ‘health emergency’ for First Nations
- Water fight: Bottles, wells, big business
- Ontario teen activist takes on the bottled water industry
- Water scarcity poses economic and security threat around the world
- Calgary scientists create mini-worlds to test water-treatment strategies
- Great Lakes are on the mend, but new threats loom
- Vast, interconnected and stunningly beautiful: A view of Canada’s waterways – Map
Watermark is a feature documentary from multiple-award winning filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, and renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, marking their second collaboration after Manufactured Landscapes in 2006. The film brings together diverse stories from around the globe about our relationship with water: how we are drawn to it, what we learn from it, how we use it and the consequences of that use. We see massive floating abalone farms off China’s Fujian coast and the construction site of the biggest arch dam in the world – the Xiluodu, six times the size of the Hoover. We visit the barren desert delta where the mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, and the water-intensive leather tanneries of Dhaka.
We witness how humans are drawn to water, from the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where thirty million people gather for a sacred bath in the Ganges at the same time. We speak with scientists who drill ice cores two kilometers deep into the Greenland Ice Sheet, and explore the sublime pristine watershed of Northern British Columbia. Shot in stunning 5K ultra high-definition video and full of soaring aerial perspectives, this film shows water as a terraforming element, as well as the magnitude of our need and use. In Watermark, the viewer is immersed in a magnificent force of nature that we all too often take for granted- until it’s gone.