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Water – and the human impacts on this precious and vital resource, is receiving much public attention at the moment. Concerns about water scarcity, floods, algal blooms and cyanobacterial pollution in our rivers and lakes, the quality of our drinking water and the effects of climate change on water resources, are all uppermost in many minds.
As Canadians, we take our abundance of fresh water for granted. Indeed, we are by and large a water rich country, especially when compared with other world regions. Annually Canada's rivers discharge seven per cent of the world's renewable water supply, and almost nine per cent of the country's total area is covered by fresh water. Furthermore, we have about 25 per cent of the world's wetlands – the largest wetland area in the world.
But despite this overall national richness of water, our Prairie provinces suffer from water shortages. Crop failure due to drought is a common occurrence for agricultural producers who have not invested in irrigation. And even in Alberta, where there is an extensive network of dams, irrigation canals and privately owned centre pivot sprinkler systems, there is a cap on irrigation water allocations and the overall irrigated area. Concerns about water shortages, competition for limited water supplies by other sectors of the economy, as well as the need to meet environmental water demands, have forced irrigators to adopt water-savings practices. Today in Canada, thanks to innovative irrigation technologies, 25 per cent less water is used to produce more crops than 30 years ago.
Lack of water is not confined to just the Prairie region. Water levels in the Great Lakes have been dropping, and this has had an impact on recreational boating, fisheries, navigation, and drinking water intakes during the summer months. Large freighters that have traditionally used the St. Lawrence Seaway have recently been forced to unload some of their cargo downstream from Montreal to cope with shallower water levels in the St. Lawrence.
In terms of drinking water quality, there is growing concern about the age of and technology in our treatment plants. The water delivery infrastructure is also in urgent need of renewal. The polluting of our drinking water sources by personal care products and pharmaceuticals poses a major technological challenge, since older treatment plants are not able to remove these pollutants.
The clogging of our waterways with blue-green algae has been getting much press over the past few summers. Cottage owners around lakes are most upset at the aesthetics and resulting odour, not to mention prohibitions on swimming and drinking. There is a call for a ban on phosphorus detergents by cottage owners, and to reduce the pollution from farmlands. It is useful to note that Quebec has been quite progressive in reducing agricultural pollution, and has made enormous strides over the past 10-15 years to improve water quality in rural areas. In fact the province has demonstrated national leadership in this regard. The introduction of regulations governing nutrient management plans and environmental farm plans has led to the adoption of agricultural best management practices (BMPs) aimed at protecting water quality.
We are reminded of the enormous human health impacts and associated costs and social upheaval of poor drinking water quality by the recent calamities in Walkerton, Ont., North Battleford, Sask., and Kaskechewan, Ont. These situations proved that the problems are not all technology related, but that our institutional mechanisms are also highly vulnerable. The complex patchwork of federal, provincial and municipal jurisdictions hampers effective governance of water resources. There is certainly a need for all three levels of government to work much more closely and collaboratively, if we are to effectively resolve the challenges in water management across the country, especially some of the complexities highlighted above.
While it is important that we focus on the problems at home and develop solutions, we should not be oblivious to the global water crisis in which one in 12 people lives in river basins affected by water stress or water scarcity. It is projected that about three billion people, or nearly 40 per cent of the world's population, could face water scarcity or water stress of some sort by 2005. A recent United Nations Human Development Report pointed out that these conditions will limit human development and exacerbate poverty in some of the world's poorest countries. As Canadians, we have an obligation to transfer our knowledge, expertise and technologies to countries affected by water scarcity, in order to avert a global crisis, which may have severe political and socio-economic repercussions.
McGill University and the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management have made many contributions to improving the understanding of the problems of water both nationally and internationally, and in helping to develop solutions in collaboration with many partners. Given the severity of the problems of water management, and the likely impacts on society, McGill will continue to be called upon to show academic leadership in helping to resolve the growing water crisis at home and abroad.
Chandra A. Madramootoo is the Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Founding Director, Brace Centre for Water Resources Management.