Water, water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink. These were the words of the protagonist in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Here on the West Coast of Canada, we are blessed with an abundance of water that comes every year as rain and snow. But unlike the Ancient Mariner, most of us living along BC’s ragged coastline have access to sufficient supplies of drinkable water. I acknowledge that this is often not the case among First Nations communities.
Water is essential to all life on the planet. There is no substitute for water fit to drink. It cannot be replaced.
Messing with the Water Cycle
Yet, our species acts as if blind to these simple facts of life. We’re messing around with the hydrological cycle on a scale that’s very likely unprecedented in the Earth’s history.
Take the Canadian prairies as an example. Marshes and other wetlands have vanished at an astonishing rate to be replaced by crops. While this practice has enhanced private gain, it comes at a high cost to the public. Wetland drainage, along with climate change, has been linked to overland flooding and degraded water quality.
Here’s a 15 minute documentary I produced on this issue.
Canadian Attitudes About Water
Last March, the Royal Bank of Canada released it’s 10th annual report on what Canadians think, feel and act in regard to water. The accompanying press release bears the title and subtitle that give a strong clue to what their study discovered. “The story that has emerged is both complex and enlightening,” RBC says. ” On one hand, it confirms how much Canadians value our water and how integral our lakes and rivers are to our national identity; on the other, it reveals a troubling carelessness with a resource Canadians still consider unlimited in its abundance.”
More worrisome, the research revealed “startling contradictions between what Canadians know to be true about the impact of climate change on water, and what they continue to believe about Canada’s water wealth.” The press release for the study lists these examples:
- For the 10th year in a row, Canadians named water our most valuable natural resource. Yet we remain world-class water wasters and report taking fewer actions to conserve water last year than we did in 2008.
- Canadians are more convinced about the risks to our water quality and supply than they were a decade ago, yet confidence in our ability to meet long-term water needs remains unchanged (at 84 per cent).
- Canadians feel more personally at risk when it comes to droughts and floods than in the past. However, one-in-four Canadians think climate change will have no impact on our fresh water. Even with considerable efforts to raise climate change awareness, this is a higher number today than it was in 2009.”
Explaining the Contradictions
How to explain these contradictions? The RBC turned to my friend and colleague, Robert Sandford, for possible answers. Sanford possesses considerable expertise in this area, a fact validated by his appointment as the EPCOR Chair for Water Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Sandford thinks denial may be at work since it appears difficult for Canadians to reconcile the long-standing belief in the abundance of water with the reality of its degradation both in terms of quality and quantity.
“Second, while Canadians treasure our water, we have little appreciation for what it is worth and how valuable it is to our economy and economic competitiveness,” he’s quoted as saying in the press release. “We don’t pay the real costs of the water we use—neither the costs necessary to transport and treat it, nor the environmental costs of wasting it. As a result, we’ve come to believe that water is cheap. There’s no incentive to use less of it.”
So what’s the solution? What needs to be done to have Canadians become much better stewards of freshwater? RBC offers these recommendations:
- Better communicate the value of water to our economy. Governments and business are encouraged to understand and transparently communicate the value of water to our economies and bottom-lines. Canada has made significant progress putting climate change in an economic context. We must now do the same for water.
- Focus on implementing the solutions in front of us. Existing knowledge and technology could take us much of the way toward becoming a more water resilient and therefore more sustainable country. The report shows high support for government investment in areas like better water infrastructure, for example. This is something we can start doing today.
- Show global leadership. Canada has the opportunity to seize our deep connection to fresh water and translate this into global leadership in water stewardship.
These are good recommendations as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. They leave out what Canadians can do as individuals or as communities.
To learn the value of water, not just to the economy, but to life itself, I recommend taking a mindful hike in a local natural area where water runs freely. Some of my fondest times doing this have taken place during the muted stillness of a winter rain. I come away refreshed to the core of my being every time.
I firmly believe that if more Canadians experienced water in this deep-rooted way, the contradictions would soon disappear.
If you’d like to experience and learn about water in this way, please get in touch with me. I’d be delighted to introduce you to the watery world of winter on Canada’s West Coast.