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Progress being made to protect fresh water: experts
Derek Baldwin
Belleville Intelligencer

Local News - A panel of water experts told an environmental forum in Belleville Wednesday that Ontario is making strides to protect fresh water.

Millions are being spent by the province, said Ontario Environment Commissioner Gord Miller, on everything from water treatment plants and groundwater studies to a new nutrient management plant to prevent another Walkerton tragedy.

But, the news isn’t so good on a global scale for billions of impoverished Third World residents who are succumbing to disease because they can’t access fresh clean water, said United Nations spokesman Dr. Ralph Daley.

Miller and Daley were among a panel of experts — including Jim Kelleher of Lower Trent Conservation and John Jackson of Great Lakes United — who spoke at a standing-room only forum that attracted more than 200 people at the Ramada Inn.

The forum was organized by the Lower Trent Conservation, Quinte Conservation and the Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan and was convened to explore issues challenging freshwater access locally and around the world.

The United Nations has declared 2003 International Year of Freshwater.

Daley, who is director of the United Nations University’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health, warned that the world is hurtling toward a global crisis in which millions of people could die in coming years if preventative measures are not implemented.

He praised Ontario’s efforts to protect water and said efforts by Queen’s Park are a good model in contrast to a lack of political will internationally to provide fresh water outside of the industrialized world.

“Take Ontario’s water problems for the last 50 years and look at an African country. With no money, an African country is facing all of these problems immediately but they have no financial means to correct any of the problems. That’s why I call it a global crisis,” said Daley.

The numbers compiled by the United Nations water team — set to be released next month in the most comprehensive water study ever done — are disturbing, he said.

For example, one billion people around the world have no access to clean water. Another 3.2 billion people have no access to sanitation.

The situation is a breeding ground for death.

“Eighty per cent of all disease in these developing countries is water related, from fecal contamination to waterborne diseases,” said Daley — that translates into three to five million deaths a year around the world.

Daley said billions of dollars will be needed in the next 10 years to implement community drinking wells to end widespread waterborne diseases.

“To put proper water in all people’s hands is estimated at $16 billion. That’s the same amount of money people in the industrialized world spend on pet food,” said Daley.

By 2025, said Daley, 30 per cent of the world’s population will face water shortages. Most fresh water is located in the developed world that contains only one-fifth of the population.

The problem, said Daley, is that demand for water is increasing at twice the population rate due to increased growth and food production. The world’s population is expected to rise from 5.8 million now to 8 billion by 2025.

The upside to the worsening water problem, said Daley, is that the world’s water crisis is finally being recognized by the international community.

“The good news is that in five years, it has moved from an invisible issue to the number-one issue facing governments today. Now the United Nations is seriously beginning to examine how the world can fix the situation.”

Global water demands will push the limits in Ontario as well, said provincial Environment Commissioner Miller.

In a frank address to the forum, Miller said Ontario has made progress by moving toward higher water quality standards in cities and on farms.

But, he said, issues such as climate change, non-sustainable growth and accumulative effects will challenge legislators to protect water here in the future.

“Water is the blood of our ecosystems. Like blood, we drain it or spill it at our peril,” said Miller.

The greatest challenge facing Ontario, he said, is balancing the needs of future growth with ensuring there is safe water for the future.

Referring to findings from a commission into the Walkerton E. coli tragedy, Miller said “what we need out of this is watershed planning and source protection.”

Efforts are now being made by the province in conjunction with conservation authorities to gauge the impact water taking is having on massive underground aquifers that face serious depletion through wells, golf courses, water bottlers and drought.

Since the spring of 2000, said Miller, the provincial government is beginning to take water taking seriously through tighter water taking controls and through the study of groundwater quantities.

“We heard water taking permits were not working. The biggest concerns were the Ministry of Environment was not adding them (permits and the amount of water taken) up. You think they were adding them up, but they weren’t,” said Miller.

Lower Trent Conservation general manager Jim Kelleher welcomed all efforts to implement watershed planning but, like Miller, said more needs to be done to protect water supplies.

“One large piece that is missing from a comprehensive approach to securing water supplies is source protection. Source protection plans need to protect and enhance all surface and ground water resources for all current and future water needs,” said Kelleher.

To do that, watershed plans “set out the big picture. They draw together all of the understanding of the watershed’s functions, the pressures on it, and the desires for resource use, and identify the needs for protection and restoration.”
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