Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 3 - 4, July - December 2002

Sustainable Water - A History of Complacency: Executive Director's Report

Environmentalists have been claiming for decades that water is one of the most valuable resources in the world. In fact, water is now like oil where many countries are prepared to go to war to secure its control. The United Nations Environment Program's Global Environment Outlook 2000 report noted that shortage of clean water is one of the most pressing global problems. Already 20% of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water. The report notes that if there is no change to current consumption patterns, two out of three people will live in water stressed conditions by the year 2025.

For too many Canadians, we are complacent about our water resources. Too many believe that there is an eternal supply of clean water. It is only when threats to these water resources occur that policy makers and the public pause to reflect at their incredible vulnerability. When a small company wanted to export Great Lakes water in the mid-1990s, opposition steadily increased as more information was gathered to expose the implications of this proposal. There were fears that the export of water would create a floodgate of other applications with the trade regime immobilizing efforts to turn off the tap. Governments have to be reminded that in the Great Lakes, only one percent of the Great Lakes water is renewable. The other 99 percent was stored there at the time of the last glacier melt some 20,000 years ago. Great Lakes water remains the envy of so many multinational companies and other countries that have aspirations of privatizing, trading, selling, or otherwise appropriating it for profit or for self-interest. National, provincial and local campaigns are undertaking terrific work to make the public aware of these kinds of threats to our waters and water management systems. [See articles "Border Crossing Challenges: Annex 2001," "Toronto Water Watch Wins: Council Votes Against Arm's-Length Water Agency" and "Walkerton 2003: More Questions Than Answers"]

In 2000, the Walkerton tragedy provided another truly unfortunate wake-up call about our complacency towards water. As a result of contaminated drinking water, seven people died and over 2,000 people became ill. After a year and one-half of investigation, the Walkerton Inquiry report made over 120 recommendations to prevent similar tragedies and provide better protection for the province's drinking water. At the present time, some progress has been made to implement these recommendations. A Safe Drinking Water Act has been passed into law. [See article "Ontario Passes Safe Drinking Water Act"] A Nutrient Management Act has been passed with regulations to implement it released for public consultation. [See article "Responding to the Ontario Government's Stage1 Proposals under the Nutrient Management Act"] A multi-stakeholder committee has been struck and is working to develop a source protection regime to implement recommendations pertaining to watershed planning and measures to protect sources of drinking water in Ontario. [See article "CELA Appointed to Source Protection Advisory Committee"]

Despite this work, the question that must be asked is why it took so many deaths and so many illnesses before action was triggered. Certainly we are now aware of the many threats to the future of the Great Lakes that require immediate attention by government and the public. Some of the threats to the Great Lakes include continued toxic contamination and discharges; exotic species that may be responsible for dramatic changes in various aspects of local and regional ecosystems; shoreline developments; gas pipelines; decreasing biological diversity; and increasing number of proposals that aim to draw on the groundwater supply. This list could go on and on. Perhaps the most significant threat still remains - the lack of priority by political decision-makers given to protect Canadian waters. We hope that action to respond to some of these threats will happen without a repeat of a human health or environmental tragedy.