Canada’s freshwater is our greatest asset; governments are failing to protect it
In 2015, the world committed itself to 17 global goals that became known as the Sustainable Development Goals with the intent of serving as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity,” according to the United Nations.
Goal 6, which commits the world to ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation, has been in the headlines ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference which will launch the Water Action Agenda with commitments from countries across the globe to promote water security.
The stats that prompted this call to action are grim. Approximately 770 million, or one in 10, people across the globe do not have access to safe consumable water. Approximately 282 million people globally spend 30 minutes or more walking to fetch water, sometimes multiple times per day. Sitting in a single detached home in Peel Region with fresh water at the turn of the tap, it can be easy to overlook the severity of the water crisis globally.
Today is World Water Day, which highlights the need to protect the resource organic life on Earth needs to survive.
Currently, nations collectively are far off track to reach Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 by 2030. In order to meet the target, the UN estimates governments need to work four times faster on efforts to ensure safe water for all.
When we think of the water crisis (if it even comes to mind) we often associate it with less affluent nations, where women, or often children, walk long distances to the nearest freshwater pump, or worse, to the nearest creek or stream filled with various contaminants. Close to home, Indigenous communities are still plagued with boil water advisories that are often overlooked by the federal government. According to the government of Canada website, 24 long term drinking water advisories currently remain in 21 communities across the province; some have been in place for years.
“Compared to most Canadians, access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a human right that too many First Nations still lack, contributing negatively to First Nations health, education, and economic development outcomes,” reads the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) initiative on the UN SDG website. “If the Canadian government guaranteed access to safe drinking and adequate sanitation for all First Nations, this would allow First Nations to enjoy a good quality of life on their respective traditional territories, as this begins with clean, fresh, and accessible sources of water and access to adequate sanitation, which promotes positive mental and physical health outcomes and fosters prosperity and economic development.”
Ensuring safe drinking water for Indigenous communities aligns with SDG 6 as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). The commitment of the AFN to work with the Canadian government to ensure that this access is provided without barriers is one of Canada’s commitments under the Water Action Agenda. Canada is part of 52 other initiatives which range from groundwater education, to combatting water scarcity in the agricultural sector, and engaging youth in the conversation.
Canada has a major role to play. A country with less than one percent of the world’s population, our nation has 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater supply, seven percent of which is considered renewable. This places an enormous global responsibility on the shoulders of Canada, a responsibility that, increasingly, has not been met by action.
“This is a much more urgent priority than I think most people realize,” Mississauga Councillor Alvin Tedjo, who also sits on the Board of Directors for both the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) and Conservation Halton (CH), said. “And that's something that we're going to have to address.”
Prior to their reelection in 2021, the federal Liberals made a slew of promises to tackle the complexities of freshwater security. The first campaign promise made by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals was the establishment of a fully funded Canada Water Agency by 2022, along with modernizing the 50-year-old Canada Water Act to include addressing the impact of climate change and Indigenous water rights. According to a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), $43.5 million has been allotted over five years, beginning in 2022/2023 to create a new Canada Water Agency, much later than promised.
“We've seen some lackluster investment in maintaining the protection of the water from our federal government and our provincial government,” Tedjo said.
Along with the investment in the creation of the Canada Water agency, the Liberal government also made a promise for a $1 billion investment over ten years in the creation of a Freshwater Action Plan. The 2022/2023 budget saw the first investment in this initiative with a mere $19.6 million, less than two percent of the promised funds, being allocated. This prompted the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to renew a call for action and the $1 billion investment in collaboration with its partner municipalities. The Region of Peel passed a motion in support on February 9 but there was no discussion on the matter. Today the motion is on the agenda for Mississauga council and Tedjo said he is hoping a more well rounded discussion will unfold.
Peel Region is one of the largest users of water per capita. Across Canada, the average water usage lies around 4,400 litres per capita per day. This is a little less than the amount used across the region (the figure represents all water consumption including industrial use).
“People take water for granted in the Region, because it's so safe, it's so clean, it's so readily available, and it's actually very, very cheap,” Tedjo said. “And it makes it easier for people to not have to think about it.”
Most Canadians do not worry about their water supply and for Peel Region, having control over its own water means residents will always be a top priority. Peel also supplies water to other jurisdictions, most notably York Region, and Tedjo said all residents should receive basic information on water conservation.
“Municipalities can do more to encourage more water conservation. And to try and get people to understand that we have this delicate balance with our water supply and that we shouldn't be taking advantage of it. [Water] is a priority that I think we're not fully realizing needs to be addressed. It's one of those things that until it turns bad for people, they don't pay attention to it.”
Brampton’s Churchville neighbourhood saw hundreds of people evacuated from their homes last year as water levels rapidly rose, flooding the streets and causing damage to infrastructure. Malkeet Sandhu, a Brampton resident and volunteer with the David Suzuki Foundation, remembers it well, and told her story recently in a deputation to Brampton City Council during budget deliberations.
“It’s been four years since council declared a climate emergency and Brampton’s emissions are still rising,” she said. “Last year I watched from my window as the Credit River flooded Creditview Road, damaging trees, roads and homes in the Churchville neighbourhood…To be honest, as a parent I’m frightened for my child’s future, but what gives me hope is knowing that the solutions do exist and there are leaders pushing to implement them.”
Following the election of Mayor Patrick Brown in 2018, Brampton has spent very little on environmental measures, leaving residents like Sandhu asking for stronger commitments by municipal leaders.
Meanwhile, the provincial government is pressuring municipalities to build more homes and streamline the development process, at the expense of many environmental safeguards.
“Developers and cities need to be very responsible with where we are developing,” Tedjo said. “We're 100 percent in favour of trying to add more housing and give people more options to live, but we need to do it in a responsible way. We shouldn't be building in floodplains, we need to be listening to the conservation authorities when they're telling us that this is a dangerous site.”
The passage of Bill 23 and subsequent changes to the Greenbelt Act have made this much more difficult. Bill 23 removes much of the authority to comment on development proposals from conservation authorities, downloading responsibilities on to municipalities which do not have the proper staff to make complex technical decisions. This streamlined process puts watersheds at risk from the increase of debris and contaminants from nearby developments and runoff from roads and other infrastructure.
“It's no surprise to anybody following the housing action plan of this government, that people are upset about a wide range of land use planning actions,” Andrew McCammon, President of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, said. “But unfortunately, there's been very little sense of how the current decisions of this government are impacting our water security.”
The Ontario Headwaters Institute, in collaboration with other environmental organizations, under the Coalition of Ontario Water Guardians, has drafted a petition for the provincial government to consider the threats to water security when debating the amalgamation of the Places to Grow Act and the Provincial Policy Statement, a move that will further streamline development across the province.
“Unfortunately, water is running below the radar,” McCammon said. “And so we felt that there was a huge need to address that the province’s land use planning actions, as well as its reductions on the strict water side, present a cumulative threat to Ontario's water.”
McCammon reported Wednesday that 600 signatures have already been added to the petition.
Many of the concerns the collective of organizations have about this amalgamation, are similar to concerns the Ontario Headwaters Institute expressed in the wake of the Greenbelt carve outs.
“Watershed stressors such as population growth, habitat loss and degradation, land-use activities, as well as climate change, can impair Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health,” the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report warns.
Climate change is increasingly impacting the ways we consume water and the condition of water, especially in parts of Canada where warming is happening at as much as twice the rate of the global average. Climate change is contributing significantly to lower water levels across the Great Lakes basin, where steady declines have been seen since 1986.
Conservation authorities publish annual watershed report cards, many of which have shown the health of watersheds in Ontario is rapidly decreasing. The newest report cards, published today, show the trend is continuing.
For Tedjo, who sits on the board of directors for two of the three conservation authorities spanning the Region of Peel, these reports need to serve as a wake up call for all levels of government.
“We're human beings, we can't survive without clean water,” he said. “We need to make sure we're protecting it.”
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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer