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Great Lakes Article:

Canada Running Short On Water?

We're using up Earth's resources faster than nature replenishes them. And Canada has less fresh water than we think, says research scientist JOHN SPRAGUE

By JOHN SPRAGUE
Tuesday, June 28, 2002 – 
Globe and Mail Print Edition, Page A19


Most Canadians think this country is rich in water -- that we have "more than a fifth of the world's freshwater supply." If we knew the facts, we might make different decisions about the protection and commercial exploitation of this resource -- especially as we head into another hot summer of drought and boil-water alerts, and even more especially as we consider new research published yesterday in the peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reporting that it takes the planet 15 months to regenerate the resources (such as water) that humanity uses up in a year.

What does this mean in terms of freshwater supplies? Recent data from the Washington-based World Resources Institute put Canada in fifth place among nations. The three big players in national water supplies are Brazil, with 12.7 per cent of the world's renewable supply, Russia with 10.2 per cent and China with 8.3 per cent. Canada's annual renewable volume of fresh water is just 6.4 per cent of the world's total. The United States, with 5.8 per cent, is very close behind.

We seem to keep overestimating our supply because the volume in all the lakes of North America is approximately one-fifth of the fresh water sitting in lakes all over the world. But water sitting in a lake is totally different from renewable supply. We cannot consume a lake unless we plan to dry it up. Supply is what falls from the sky and runs off through lakes and rivers as it moves to the sea. Some of the water moves underground and replenishes aquifers that can be tapped by wells. The moving flows are renewed every year, and count as the water supply.

Think of water sitting in lakes and aquifers as a capital resource, money that can be spent only once. The rivers running into and out of a lake represent interest and dividends that can be used every year for an indefinite time. Or suppose I have a swimming pool full of water in my back yard, and you have only a barrel full.

This information says nothing about our water supplies. What counts is the flow when we turn on our taps. If our taps produce at the same rate, then we have equal supplies. If my tap only dribbles and yours gushes, then you have the better supply. If I use the water in my swimming pool for baths and watering the garden, it will only last a few weeks or months. The net result is that I can no longer swim in the pool, but my tap still dribbles.

It is the same with our giant lakes; we can use them to boat and fish and swim, but cannot consume their standing water. Current complaints about low water levels in the Great Lakes indicate why that is not an option. The size of the lake (or swimming pool) is of no consequence in the long term.

Indeed, lakes are not as big as might be thought; in only three and a half years, the runoff in the world's rivers equals the amount sitting in all the lakes. Exactly the same principles apply to aquifers, and to the consequences if we deplete them faster than they are renewed.

The World Resources Institute defines renewable fresh water as "salt-free water that is fully replaced in any given year through rain and snow that falls on continents and islands and flows through rivers and streams to the sea."

So misleading statements, such as "Canada has one of the most abundant supplies of fresh water in the world, exceeding the volume of U.S. water resources by a factor of 10," cannot help but influence the outlook of the average citizen about the merits of exporting water. It also influences political decisions, because our leaders apparently believe the same myth. David Anderson, Canada's Minister of the Environment, was heard on CBC Radio not too long ago to say, "Although Canada has the world's largest supply of fresh water . . ."

It's distressing to hear our leaders talk about Canada's huge reserves -- and to hear Americans talk openly about joint exploitation of them. It's particularly distressing to see such statements from our leaders because government technical experts know the real situation.

The Web site of Environment Canada (http://www.ec.gc.ca/water) distinguishes between static volumes of lakes and the renewable supply; Environment Canada assigns us about 9 per cent of the world's share, a good estimate except that it is based on 1970s data.

The up-to-date numbers come from the publication World Resources 2000-2001 (produced co-operatively by the World Resources Institute, the UN development and environment Programs, and the World Bank). Until 1999, Canada ranked as No. 3 nation for renewable water supply, but China and Indonesia were close behind. New data for water flowing out of China moved it up to No. 3; Indonesia has also moved up and now Canada is in fifth place.

Let's also bear in mind that about 60 per cent of Canadian yearly water flow goes north into the Arctic, according to Environment Canada's Web site. That water is largely unavailable for use in the southern part of the country, where most of us live, work and farm. The supply in southern Canada would only be about 2.6 per cent of the world's water supply.

This is the number that should spring to the minds of Canadians when contemplating our water resources, rather than some mythical large portion. It has an entirely different influence on thoughts about sharing with neighbours.

If Canada has a comfortable total supply of water, it should be used creatively within the country. General A.G.L. Mc- Naughton -- a wartime leader, he became chairman of the Canadian Section, International Joint Commission on Boundary Waters -- noted this as long ago as 1965, when he told the Montreal Canadian Club: "All of our water can be translated into growth somewhere. Let it take place in Canada." Let's remember this as we consider the latest information about the nothing less than rapacious human consumption of the Earth's resources. Supply is limited.
John B. Sprague is a former research scientist with the federal Department of Fisheries, and a retired academic now living on Saltspring Island, B.C. One of his early publications was, for a third of a century, the world's most frequently cited paper in limnology (fresh-water science).

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