Canada’s water at risk

Canada’s water supply is at risk. And it’s not just because of e-coli contamination.

It is also because our fresh, potable Canadian water is a hot world trade commodity, argues Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians.

It is also at risk, says David Schindler of the University of Alberta, because of environmental trends such as global warming as well as acidification of lakes, rivers and streams due to acid rain.

Is it true that Canada’s fresh water supply could dwindle to an undrinkable trickle?

I cannot say for sure, but far more scientific minds than mine strenuously argue that Canadians are slumbering over a life-threatening issue.

Here’s what’s in the news.

In the Company of Canadians latest mailout, Ms Barlow demands that we seriously consider the impact of how Free Trade will affect our indigenous supply of fresh water. She cites several attempts by large corporations to sell Canadian water abroad. In her letter, these instances are quoted:

“In 1998, the Nova Group of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, applied for a permit to sell up to 10 million litres of Lake Superior water each day to Asia. Under public pressure, Nova agreed to withdraw its application, but this country came within a whisker of selling as much as six hundred million liters of our precious water each year…

“Just months after Nova made its application, another company — McCurdy Group of Newfoundland — sought permission to export a staggering 52 billion litres of water a year from Newfoundland’s pristine Gisborne Lake. (That’s over 86 times as much water as the Lake Superior deal involved.”

So what? Does it matter if Canada exports this water?

Ms Barlow vehemently believes it does. First of all, she says that we should be concerned about environmental degradation: the “destruction of animal’s homes, accumulation of poisonous mercury in the water, and even changes in climate.”

But she argues the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) states that once Canada starts such exports, “it will be impossible to stop them…. The NAFTA deal clearly says that once we start exporting water we cannot stop. And, if our government tries to pass a law prohibiting these exports, corporations can sue our government for lost business. (In fact, Sun Belt Water Inc. of California is currently suing Canada for $10.5 billion because the BC government banned water exports in the early 1990s.”

Her claims sound alarming, as do warnings from David Schindler of the University of Alberta.

In the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences [as quoted in January 5, 2001 Ottawa Citizen], Mr. Schindler wrote about how global warming makes lake habitats vulnerable to the effects of acidification through acid rain. He explains that ultra-violet light filters more easily through acidic water. Therefore, anything living in such water is more susceptible to damaging UV rays: this includes fish, birds, plant life; in other words, the entire food chain.

“The overall effect,” Mr. Schindler claims, “will be the degradation of Canadian fresh water on a scale that was not comprehensible to the average Canadian at the end of the 20th Century.”

Mr. Schindler ought to know of what he speaks. In December 2000 he was a candidate for the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada gold medal, awarded to Canada’s top science researcher. Specifically, he points to three main threats to Canada’s fresh water supply.

1. The ice caps in the Canadian Rockies are receding and the Prairie Province’s water supply is at risk. This situation occurs because Alberta and Saskatchewan depend upon these glaciers to feed their river systems.

2. Global warming won’t influence the amount of precipitation falling in Canada, he thinks. But warmer temperatures result in increased evaporation. He envisions a time where the Great Lakes won’t be able to support shipping unless increased precipitation happens so as to maintain (if not increase) current water levels.

3. Global warming means warmer waters that won’t support the same amount (or type) of aquatic species as exist today. Game fish will less numerous.

4. A reduction in water levels is not echoed in reduction of pollutants.

Mr. Schindler is a noted expert. He is, writes the Citizen’s environmental writer Tom Spears, the Canadian scientist “who is credited with proving that acid rain really does kill fish, with tracing the path of DDT and other toxic chemicals into the High Arctic, and with showing how hydro dams and global warming change the chemistry of lakes.”

Mr. Schindler makes the cogent point that Canadians ought not to believe for a moment that the Walkerton problem is solved by pouring chlorine into e-coli-contaminated drinking water.

After all, who wants to drink chlorine? It’s a proven carcinogen.

So, the point is, how do we ensure we have clean drinking water? How do we do our level best to ensure that we’re not creating an acid bath for aquatic species to attempt to survive in?

How do we tell our federal, provincial and municipal governments that we Canadians don’t want to trade off our most precious natural resource?

As usual, we need to act. We need to ask our MP, MNA, our councillors, to ensure we protect our water systems. Here in Municipality of Pontiac, we all know Quyon has a water problem. But don’t point fingers: how many other villages are dumping untreated human and other waste into the Ottawa River?

The sooner politicians realize that we cannot replenish this vital resource, the better. The sooner we all respect water for what it is: the foundation of all life on Earth, the better.

Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians, of course, want my money and yours. But this organization also wants to send a petition to the Hon. John Manley, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Hon. Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of Trade. Send them a message yourself, else contact the Council at 1-800-387-7177 to find out more.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon. Reach her at or at her website at