We can’t take water for granted

The following column was printed in the Guelph Mercury today, October 30 2008:

We mustn’t take water for granted

By Lilian Schaer

It’s widely been touted as the new oil over which the wars of the future will be fought.

That’s something that is hard for many Canadians to fathom — after all, our country is known around the world for its abundance of water. In fact, we’ve always had so much water that we rarely give it a second thought.

And that’s precisely where the problem lies, Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said in his annual report, which was released last week.

Water is an undervalued commodity that we are taking for granted, he stated, and it’s high time the government focused on the potential water problems that lie ahead even for us in our apparent land of plenty.

For Ontario’s farmers, Miller’s comments are both welcome and worrisome.

Ontario’s water consumption is increasing continuously as cities grow and industry develops. Water exports mean millions of litres are leaving our watersheds permanently, and low water conditions over the last decade have depleted the groundwater levels in some water basins to historically low levels.

The provincial government developed a low-water response plan several years ago to implement restrictions during droughts. But questions remain about who takes priority during a water shortage.

Is it up to the municipality to keep taps flowing in its households? Is it industry that sustains jobs in the region? Or is it farmers who grow our food? Even within the farming sector, there are questions of priority: should a sod farmer whose high-value crop is worthless without irrigation water have more access than one who raises livestock or grows vegetables?

Those are issues that should be resolved –and not during times of crisis when emotions run high and everyone is desperately seeking solutions.

Miller charges that despite the low-water response plan, the provincial government has never yet enacted a level-three emergency — the most serious state of water restriction –even when one existed. This, he says, is because water restrictions are unpalatable to Ontarians and we are “. . . stuck in our old assumptions of abundant water, and cannot bring ourselves to impose water restrictions, even when restrictions are clearly needed.”

Another area that should be addressed is the need to put public water use ahead of the interests of private bottling companies.

The bottled water industry is a large one in Canada, but as public concern over water supplies rises, the environmental commissioner has stressed the need for the government to focus on essential water uses — including drinking water — in areas where water demand may be higher than supply.

In 2007, the Ontario government began requiring high-volume water users to pay a fee for use. This included water bottlers, but the fee was nominal, leaving Miller to urge the province to enact a broader sweeping law and charge more users a higher fee that more accurately reflects water’s true value.

Many Ontario farmers who depend on irrigation to grow their crops fear they may fall under this category as well. This is an expense they can ill afford and one they shouldn’t be forced to bear, farm groups argue, since the water they use for their crops is recycled back into the environment and doesn’t permanently leave the watershed.

Miller’s report coincided with the appointment last week of Canadian water activist Maude Barlow as the United Nations’ first senior adviser on water issues. This is part of the UN’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of global water problems during its self-proclaimed “Water for Life” decade, which ends in 2015.

It’s perhaps yet another sign that water is an issue we should be taking seriously.

I don’t think anyone is more aware of the importance of water than farmers. After all, they depend on it not only for their families and their livelihoods — but also to feed the rest of us.

Perhaps we should all take a page from their book and pay more attention to one of our most precious resources while we still have it and can still affect change.

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