Canada's water: A paradox of pollution and waste

May 14, 2014 by Jacques Lemieux
A view of the frozen Bow River and the Canadian Pacific Railway, seen at Banff National park near Lake Louise, Canada, on December 6, 2013

In Canada, a country with vast reserves of freshwater, the precious resource should reasonably be expected to be pristine and practically free to consumers.

But the abundance, unfortunately, has led to overconsumption, waste and sometimes mediocre quality.

"People who come from abroad, particularly Europeans, are surprised to find that in most Canadian municipalities there are no meters," said Manuel Rodriguez, a water expert at Laval University in Quebec City.

The surprise is all the greater at the sight of the majestic St Lawrence River, Niagara Falls and the countless other waterways that together make up seven percent of the world's freshwater.

In truth, Canada's tap water is not free. A small portion of municipal taxes goes toward paying for water treatment and the upkeep of water distribution systems.

But it is so small that most people think their water is free, and that they have no reason to marshall their consumption.

"We can't delude ourselves, there's a lot of water and... the cost of producing is not very high," commented Patrick Drogui, a professor at INRS University in Quebec City.

However, as in many other countries, commercial livestock operations and other industries in Canada pollute the watershed.

Here and there, such as in the south of Canada's Quebec province, in rivers and lakes "the quality of the water is dubious," Rodriguez says.

Still, it is treated and reused by municipalities.

A section of St Lawrence River is pictured near Montreal, Canada, on September 1, 2009

In the coming years, these costs risk rising with new pollutants appearing such as endocrine disrupters or pharmaceutical residues that will require new standards and treatments to remove them from water sources, Drogui said.

"Very, very toxic" for humans, these pollutants, found in trace amounts in water, are already leading to "a feminization" in certain fish species, and pose a real threat to humans, he added.

Perverse consequences

The abundance of water also has perverse consequences.

"Because you don't receive a water bill, you pay less attention to conservation and so this promotes waste," said Drogui, who paints a picture of a Canadian who spends hours watering his lawn or uses gallon after gallon to wash his car.

Canadians consume on average 300 to 400 liters (80 to 100 gallons) of water a day—one of the highest rates in the world.

But since there are no water meters, this figure is only an estimate, Rodriguez noted.

The city of Montreal produces about 934 liters of potable water per inhabitant each day. A large amount of this however leaks directly back into the ground as it flows through dilapidated pipes to homes and businesses.

The Rainbow Bridge is seen crossing from the US (L) into Canada, near the Niagara Falls, on June 4, 2013

The situation is the same in cities across Canada, where 30 percent of treated water flows back to its source before reaching the consumer, according environment ministry figures.

Efforts to end this waste have been modest so far. Quebec province is looking to fix its networks of pipes to reduce the amount of wasted water to 20 percent of the total by 2017, for example.

The situation is infuriating for some, notably Irving Leblanc of the Assembly of First Nations representing 630 native American tribes across Canada.

"In some communities, the situation has been described as Third World conditions where entire communities have no access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation," he said.

This is the case in a dozen isolated indigenous communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba provinces, and in a dozen more across Canada who face orders to boil their water because of industrial pollution or a lack or proper water treatment facilities.

In these places, bottled water has become the rule, shipped in at great expense.

Over the next two years, the federal government expects to spend Can$323 million ($296 million, 213 million euros) to improve the water situation in these remote communities—far less than the Can$4.7 billion that it estimated in 2011 is needed to fix the problem.

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alfie_null
4.2 / 5 (5) May 14, 2014
The article conflates not conserving water to contaminating water. They are two separate issues. Where water is abundant, putting a lot of effort into conserving it makes little sense. Where water, abundant or scarce, might be contaminated, putting a lot of effort into ensuring it is clean does make sense.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) May 14, 2014
This is the case in a dozen isolated indigenous communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba provinces, and in a dozen more across Canada who face orders to boil their water because of industrial pollution or a lack or proper water treatment facilities

A, yes....industry self regulation at work. I'm wondering: is there actually ANY example in the world where self regulation has worked?
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (4) May 14, 2014
In a country where flooding is common and snow covers the ground for half the year in some places, water conservation just seems silly. Most of the time we have too much. The exception is aquifers which are being depleted at an alarming rate. Many people who live in rural areas far from city water sources have to get water trucked in to their wells to be replenished as the natural rate is far too slow for their consumption. So while surface waters remain in abundance, ground water is becoming an endangered commodity. In many cases ground water can be used untreated while surface water must be treated making it more expensive even when it's supply is limitless.
As for the indigenous populations water troubles; much of the problem is of their own making. They have squandered funds allocated for water and sewage treatment and a number of investigations are proceeding to find out where the money went.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (5) May 14, 2014
This is the case in a dozen isolated indigenous communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba provinces, and in a dozen more across Canada who face orders to boil their water because of industrial pollution or a lack or proper water treatment facilities

A, yes....industry self regulation at work. I'm wondering: is there actually ANY example in the world where self regulation has worked?


Having to boil water is normally the result of agricultural or sewage contamination. Industrial contamination is rarely remedied by boiling unless you mean to distill it. Heavy metals, petroleum and chemical contamination is NOT removed via boiling. Recent changes to environmental laws here have given industry more opportunities of self regulation and oversight. A catastrophe in waiting to be sure.

Regarding your question; The answer would be no in regards to protection of resources or environment and yes in regards to protection of profits and the reduction of corporate liability.
Caliban
5 / 5 (4) May 14, 2014
The article conflates not conserving water to contaminating water. They are two separate issues. Where water is abundant, putting a lot of effort into conserving it makes little sense. Where water, abundant or scarce, might be contaminated, putting a lot of effort into ensuring it is clean does make sense.


@alfien,

Apologise for the 1 rank --meant it for 3, instead.

Waste of a resource --irrespective of abundance-- is certainly common, but it is still just that --Waste-- and therefore indefensible.

Our friends up in Canadia better get it in gear. Historic "overabundance" --or inconvenience-- or whatever you want to call it, is quite possibly soon to be a thing of the late and lamented past.
SamB
1 / 5 (3) May 14, 2014
Well Mr. Lemieux get one thing right. We have tons and tons of clean water. It is everywhere with pristine lakes stretching for hundreds of miles as far as the eye can see. So we can waste it if we want to because is just keeps coming back. I don't know if he knows that or not but it just keeps coming back in pristine condition with no strings attached. And we can probably waste it as much as we like for many, many generations to come. So maybe Mr. Lemieux can go find a more noble cause for his writing career. Like maybe waste and corruption in our political parties or the waste of people caught up in drugs and hopelessness or the waste of money squirreled away by Senate appointees, or by ????.. Take your pick Mr. Lemieux , but water is not one of our concerns at this time unless our boot-licking Government gives our water to the Americans..
(Then, maybe we will take up the fight to protect our water.)