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Olav Slaymaker, Prof. Emeritus of Geography and Acting Director, Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies - photo by Darin Deuck
Olav Slaymaker, Prof. Emeritus of Geography and Acting Director, Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies - photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 4 | Apr. 6, 2006

The Unclear State of Our Water

By Olav Slaymaker
Professor Emeritus of Geography and Acting Director,Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

Co-author with Tom Spencer
(Cambridge) of Physical Geography and Global Environmental Change (Adison Wesley Longman)

A world-wide sustainability transition is intended to enhance human prosperity, protect the Earth’s life-support systems and reduce hunger and poverty. To what extent are we approaching this goal in the area of water resources (question 1) and is it even useful to address this question by sector (question 2)?

The total amount of freshwater available for human use is not at issue: more than one billion cubic kilometres of freshwater are found at and close to the Earth’s surface. Least of all in Canada is this a problem, where half of one percent of the global population has access to 9 per cent of global surface freshwater. But the distribution of surface freshwater (distant from many urban centres) and the timing of precipitation (least during seasons of greatest agricultural, industrial and domestic demand) present challenges to human ingenuity.

Groundwater, on which 25 per cent of Canadians are dependent, is increasingly threatened by pollution from inappropriate land uses. More serious is the fact that Canadians use more water per capita than any other nation except the United States (over 600 litres per capita per day for all uses on average). Immediate improvements would not be painful to make given that Canadian households with metered water use consume less than 300 litres per capita per day for domestic purposes, whereas those paying a flat rate for water consume over 400 litres per capita per day for the same purposes. However, the political will to implement such simple improvements remains weak.

It has been pointed out numerous times that inadequate access to and inappropriate management of freshwater resources are leading to a wide range of ecological and human crises. Human populations continue to grow, wetlands are experiencing severe reduction, land use changes that favour urban development are intensifying, and tropical rainforests continue to be logged at unsustainable rates. If the global climatic changes that are well documented continue to move in the direction of greater warmth and aridity then water related illnesses and regional conflicts over scarce shared watersupplies can be expected to accelerate.

The answer to the first question is therefore that Canadians in particular, and humanity in general, are not making good progress towards achievement of sustainable water resources. Criteria that are increasingly being considered and which represent positive signs in this discouraging scenario include: (1) an agreed principle of guaranteed access to a basic amount of water necessary to maintain human health and to sustain ecosystems; (2) basic protections for the renewability of water resources, and; (3) institutional recommendations for planning, management and conflict resolution.

The answer to the second question is that freshwater resources intersect with so many human activities that it is at least a questionable strategy to attempt to deal with the issue sectorally. Whether we look at so-called in-stream uses of freshwater, such as hydro-electric power production, shipping, recreation or fish habitat, or so-called withdrawal uses such as domestic, industrial, irrigation, livestock watering and thermal plant cooling, freshwater resources must surely be managed in conjunction with holistic policies directed towards realization of a worldwide sustainability transition.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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