NOW's five-point plan to save our most precious resource
1 Make water a human right
Former vice-president of the World Bank Ismail Serageldin said, The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. He should know. He's leading a wave toward the mass privatization of the world's most precious resource. Global supplies are drying up. According to the United Nations, 1.3 billion people in the world today lack access to clean water, while 2.5 billion do not have adequate sewage and sanitation. No fewer than 31 countries are considered to be in water-stressed areas. And worldwide demand for water is doubling every 20 years, twice the rate of population growth. That means that by the year 2025, demand for fresh water will far outstrip global supply. In Canada, we are not immune to the growing threat of water scarcity. Twenty per cent of municipalities have faced shortages in recent years. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recognized access to water as a human right. Some 183 Canadian municipalities have followed suit, passing resolutions affirming that right. However, Canada, responding to trade pressure from the U.S and the European Union (the latter is calling on countries to open public water collection, purification and distribution to foreign-based corporations), has twice voted against recognizing water as a right at the UN. We need to roll back agreements that give foreign-owned, for-profit water corporations the power to pry open markets around the world and restrict poor people's access to water.
2 Adopt a real storm management plan
Our inability to manage stormwater and runoff from rain is costing us billions in both infrastructure and environmental costs. Poisoned water bodies, contaminated drinking water, the spread of disease and beach closures from sewer overflows have become regular occurrences in Toronto. The city has embarked on an ambitious 25-year stormwater management plan to reduce urban runoff, flooding and combined sewer overflows. In Ontario, stormwater management consists only of voluntary guidelines and a mishmash of overlapping acts. While some municipalities are moving ahead, most limit their wet-weather management to ponds, because there is no requirement for stricter watershed protection. Unlike in the United States, the Clean Water Act passed by the province to protect water quality does not include the effects of stormwater. There are also few development controls in Ontario's Planning Act. South of the border, homeowners and developers are offered financial incentives to employ low-impact development techniques that reduce harmful runoff. This reduces both the volume of harmful contaminants and costs down the pipe. The McGuinty government needs to engage municipalities in a real program to protect our freshwater ecosystems.
3 Boycott bottled water
Bottled water companies are sucking up huge amounts of water from rural springs and municipal supplies - and paying next to nothing to do it. In Ontario, companies can withdraw up to 50,000 litres from surface or groundwater sources per day without approval from the Ministry of the Environment, which has already given bottled water companies permission to pump a staggering 1,800 billion litres a year out of underground aquifers. As a result, groundwater reserves are being tapped out, reducing the flow of streams and lakes and causing stress on ecosystems. In Canada, bottled water consumption is big business, growing by 20 per cent a year and surpassing that of coffee, tea, apple juice and milk. And it's not because bottled water is safer. In fact, municipal tap water is more strictly regulated. Bottled water is not covered under Ontario's Safe Drinking Water Act. Apart from arsenic and lead, current regs lack specific detailed parameters for chemical and radiological contaminants. In Canada, no licence is required to sell bottled water. Responsibility for microbial testing lies with manufacturers. The world's two biggest-selling brands of bottled water - Pepsi's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani - are nothing more than treated tap water sold to an oblivious public as pure drinking water at astronomical profit rates. To add to the ecological and health fallout, Grass Roots Recycling Network estimates that more than 800 million pounds of virgin plastic water bottles are discarded every year. Time to rethink the hype.
4 Create national standards for clean drinking water; keep water services in public hands
We're drinking on borrowed time. One-quarter of Canadian municipalities have faced water shortages in the last year. Our national water standards haven't been updated since 1987. The province has also yet to fulfill its promise to implement all the recommendations of the inquiry into the Walkerton tainted-water scandal. A Clean Water Act has been introduced, but large areas of the province remain outside protected areas designated in the act. Twenty-two per cent of Canadians have no public sewage treatment, and another 19 per cent have crude treatment, posing risks to public heath. The exorbitant costs of replacing deteriorating infrastructure are leaving municipalities vulnerable to the privatization of water systems. Hamilton, Halifax, Moncton, Vancouver and Nanaimo are a few of the cities that have gone down the privatization road, with disastrous consequences. Councillors have been kept in the dark about their operations. And money that should have been going to water treatment has ended up in the hands of for-profit companies, compromising water safety. The provision of water services is a public trust. It should never be given up to corporations that view water standards as obstacles to profit, or who would leave poor communities without adequate services because of their inability to pay.
5 Ban water exports and diversions; protect water habitat
Canada is blessed with fresh water. But we're not immune to the effects of overuse, global warming and geography. Less than 2 per cent of Great Lakes water is renewable. Once it's gone, it's not replaceable. And most of our big rivers flow north, while most of our population lives in the south. More worrisome is the fact that water has become a tradable commodity - defined under NAFTA as a service and an investment. Already, a thirsty U.S. is putting pressure on us to open the taps to huge water exports. The Great Lakes Annex Agreement will allow extensive diversions of water. North Dakota's Devils Lake Outlet diversion project, a plan that will effectively connect the Missouri River to the Hudson Bay drainage basin, is being pursued without the proper environmental assessments. Offshore oil drilling and the lack of conservation policies, meanwhile, are threatening the viability of our coastal waters. Protecting marine species is crucial to the survival of the ecosystem and our food supply. But less than one-10th of 1 per cent of our marine coast is formally protected. At least 38 sockeye runs coastwide qualify for endangered status, yet the feds are failing to protect them from poor management and overfishing. Canada dropped out of the International Whaling Commission to protest global actions to protect whales. It's time for the feds to get back to the table, and to assert their authority over provincial governments in negotiations with the U.S. under the Boundary Waters Treaty, which bars the countries from polluting shared waters.
Groups pouring their hearts out for the cause: Blue Planet Project, Common Frontiers, the Council of Canadians, Development & Peace, Friends of the Earth Canada, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, the Polaris Institute