Why Canada's water situation is so much worse than we think

Why Canada's water situation is so much worse than we think

Water consumption doesn’t really concern me. I live in an east coast province that is rarely short of water, and my water bill pales in comparison with my power bill, which nearly gave me a heart attack in my first winter in my house.

That water bill, about $80 per month, is manageable. It’s not high enough to cut showers short or get rid of the waste-of-money hot tub in the back yard.

I’ve never watered the lawn, but that says more about my interest in gardening (zero) than my eco-sensibilities. Should I feel guilty?

Well, apparently so

Canadians need an attitude adjustment

Canadians are the second biggest consumers of water in the world after - you guessed it - the United States. Unlike them, with their vast cities, sprawling sun belt and wicked (environmental) ways, we're never going to run out of water... are we?

Well... “Canadians mistakenly think we have an unlimited supply of water and rarely give water a second thought to running taps while brushing teeth or other water waste,” says international environmental journalist Stephen Leahy. “Canada’s reality is that most waterways flow north to the Arctic. Of our easily accessible water sources like the Great Lakes many are contaminated - you can’t safely drink them without treatment. Many northern communities are under boil water advisories.”

How does Canada compare to other countries?

Not well. Canada ranks 15th out of 16 peer countries, says the The Conference Board of Canada. With our lack of widespread conservation practices, Canada’s water consumption is nearly double the average of those first-world countries.

Environment Canada says that water revenues are not enough to cover the full operational cost to supply water. They say that Canada must follow Europe’s lead, where a price increase led to a decrease in demand for water.

We’re only better than Americans in our consumption because areas of the U.S. have a drier climate. Their consumption is about 400 litres/day, explains Leahy. Also, many homes and some businesses in California don’t have water meters.

Canadian households that had metered water in 2009 used 229 litres per person per day, while houses that had a flat-rate bill used 376 litres per person per day. In 2009, only 72 per cent of households were metered.

How much water do we consume?

There are two types of water use, writes Leahy in an email. Canadians directly use about 320 litres per day per person for washing, flushing, cooking, etc. “That’s 320 kgs of water - not trivial if you had to haul it everyday from a river.”

Indirect, or virtual water use, i.e. water used to grow food, provide energy and make clothes and other products amounts to about 7,500 litres per day per person, as Leahy writes in his book “Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products”.

He explains that “in total that’s a nearly 8,000 litres per day “water footprint’” for average North Americans, or twice as much as Europeans’ water footprint.

For comparison, “think of running shoes side by side: the global shoe is a size 8; Europe’s a size 9, the North American a size 18; China or India is a tiny size 6."

Why the difference?

North Americans consume more. We buy bigger televisions, cars, and homes, and we aren’t as energy efficient as Europe, which has stricter standards and pricier energy and water, explains Leahy, adding that we also waste more food, throwing out 40 per cent of all food.

How much water do we need?

For basic human survival, people need about five litres-per-capita-per-day (LCD). Ideally people will have access to 60-80 LCD to meet their food, sanitation and bathing needs.

Who uses the most water in Canada?

It’s our industries, not private citizens, who use the most, says the Conference Board of Canada. Agriculture, which is quite inefficient, is the largest consumer of water after other industries’ usage is adjusted for the difference between water withdrawal and consumption.

Where do we get our water?

Water covers 70 per cent of our planet, and it is easy to think that it will always be plentiful. But only three per cent of that water is freshwater, suitable for human consumption and farming, and only one per cent is actually available, i.e. not frozen in glaciers or otherwise inaccessible.

How alarming is our water use? 

“Very alarming,” writes Leahy. The World Economic Forum recently declared water scarcity the top risk facing humanity in the next 10 years. Two in five people already suffer regularly due to a lack of water globally. That number’s rising to three in five by 2025. Peak water is here. This has huge implications for food production, among other things.

The future

This year, 91 per cent of people worldwide have access to an improved drinking-water source. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that since 1990, 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking-water source.

Along with UNICEF, the WHO has a goal to achieve universal access to drinking water in health care facilities and homes by 2030.

The WHO says that 842,000 people will die each year from diarrhea, a preventable disease that kills 361,000 children under five each year.

Clean water - the kind North Americans use in toilets - could prevent many of those deaths.


Your water footprint

Did you know that a 500 mL bottle of water has a 5.5 litre footprint? The extra five litres is water that’s contaminated to make the bottle from oil, so it can’t be used for anything else. Here's a few more startingly facts:

  • It takes 3,000 litres of water to grow and process the cotton for a t-shirt

  • A cup of coffee uses 140 litres of water on its way to your mug

  • Two pieces of bacon: 300 litres

  • Two eggs: 400 litres

  • One kilogram of beef: 11,000 litres of water

  • One kilogram of cotton: from India: 22,500 litres; from the United States: 8,000 litres

  • A glass of wine: 110 litres

  • A 100-gram chocolate bar costs 1700 litres 

11 ways you can conserve water

Canadians have adopted many water-saving devices. Low-flow toilets are now in 47 per cent of homes (up from 9 per cent in 1991), and more efficient shower heads are now in 63 per cent.

  1. Low-flow toilets (or put a displacement device in the tank of an older model)

  2. Rainwater barrels and cisterns for gardening

  3. Install low-flow shower heads to lower water consumption by up to 65 per cent

  4. Use lawn sprinkler timers (If you must water your lawn)

  5. Choose landscaping that doesn’t require extensive watering

  6. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, and save about 6 litres/minute

  7. Be lazy, use the dishwasher - it uses less water than washing in the sink

  8. Fill the washing machine and dishwasher to save water and power too

  9. Leave a jug of water in the fridge, and avoid running the tap to wait for the cold water

  10. Fix leaky taps: Health Canada suggests fixing a small drip could save 75 litres/day.

  11. Meatless Monday: A family could save 1.3 million litres of water by choosing a vegetarian meal instead of beef (Stephen Leahy)

How you use water in your home

Toilet flushing 30%

Personal washing - baths and taps 21%

Personal washing - showers 12%

Clothes washing 13%

Washing up 8%

Outdoor 7%

Other 5%

Drinking 4%

Source: waterwise.org.uk

How to calculate your water footprint:

It's easy, check out this link here