One illustration was enough for Canadian Water Network vice chair Margaret Catley-Carlson to show the audience at the annual Canadian Water Summit just how fast humans are depleting water sources around the world.
The image in her presentation showed a map of the world, with places facing water scarcity coloured in deep red.
In Africa and Asia, large chunks of the map were red. It was a bad sign, given the high population growth in these two continents.
“We have the same water model we’ve always had, but because of the use of it with population, a richer world, a more populated world, a more protein-wanting world, we’re drawing down more and more and more water,” she said.
According to a 2014 report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, approximately one in nine people around the world lack access to safe water. In 2012, the U.S. National Intelligence Council concluded that several regions, including North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, will face major challenges coping with water problems in the upcoming years.
Those problems will increase the risk of instability and state failure, and will exacerbate regional tensions, the Council argues. In other words, water scarcity is a security threat.
Canada was not among the countries shown facing water scarcity in Catley-Carlson’s illustration. Canada is home to about 20 per cent of the world’s total freshwater resources.
But the figure is slightly misleading, as more than half of that water drains northward into the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay, which makes it unavailable to the 85 per cent of Canadians who live along the country’s southern border.
Over 100 business professionals, academics, community representatives and policymakers had gathered in Vancouver to discuss how to build a sustainable water future for Canada in the years to come. During the full-day event last Wednesday, attendants explored the energy of water and the intersections between water, natural resources, and the food and beverage industry.
Panelists argued that Canadians should be more concerned about the future of water availability in the country. As population grows, they said, demands for water in the food, energy and other industrial sectors will also rise, but Canadians aren’t as concerned as they should be.
“Unfortunately, part of our water management problems is that we take so much comfort in our location in the world that we maybe don’t pay as much attention to our water issues as we might,” Catley-Carlson said.
Water: a valuable resource taken for granted
At the summit, the perceived value of water was constantly discussed. Despite the increasing water scarcity, panelists argued that water is still not valued as much as it should be. In developed countries, for example, people still flush toilets with clean water.
During their presentation, Alex and Tyler Mifflin discussed how their eco-adventure documentary series called The Water Brothers has helped bring awareness to some of the most important issue regarding water.
The Water Brothers examines the subject of water conservation around the world. Now in its third season, the series follows the Mifflin brothers as they travel around the globe exploring problems regarding water and the proposed solutions.
“We wanted to focus on water because we’ve saw … that it was the connecting element in all the major environmental challenges we face in the world today,” Alex said about their motivation to launch the show. “And we saw this incredible disconnect, especially among Canadians, from their water resources.”
Despite its worldwide scope, The Water Brothers has often explored local water issues. In season two, for example, an episode explored why one out of every five First Nations communities in Canada lacks access to clean, safe and sustainable drinking water. In season three, the Mifflin brothers traveled to Canada’s East Coast to document how overfishing has changed the local marine ecosystem.
“The show gives us an incredible opportunity to connect people with adventures around the world to show how water is not only what can help define us as Canadians, but what connects us all around the world to these different environmental challenges,” Alex said.
Another idea discussed during the summit to increase the perceived value of water is to start commodifying it. Catley-Carlson acknowledges that the proposition is a contentious one, but she believes putting the right price on water would allow us to move towards sustainability.
“If you’re going to protect things, I think that at some point you really need to ascribe a value so that you can say: ‘You have destroyed or damaged this, and that had a value of such and such,’” she explained. “‘So therefore, you are liable for such and such.’”
The importance of water clusters
During of the water summit’s discussion sessions, attendants explored the importance of the development of water innovation accelerator organizations, also known as water clusters.
Clusters support and foster strategic partnerships between institutions from various sectors — including universities, large corporations, emerging companies and government— in order to encourage economic development, and environmental and health protection.
During his presentation, Bryan Stubbs, the executive director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, talked about the organization’s involvement in the restoration and protection of the Cuyahoga River, after the infamous 1969 fire that helped fuel the U.S. environmental movement.
A day before the summit, Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Environment announced creation of a new water cluster. Named the Pacific Water Research Centre, the organization will support interdisciplinary research at the intersection of water science, social values and public policy. The centre will look to partner with First Nations, community partners, industry, business and government to foster water research in the region.