No one can live without water. We like to think we’re blessed with an abundance of clean water in Canada, but we really don’t have a much larger sustainable supply of water than most places. We can only sustainably use the amount that runs off on land. What we do to the environment—and not just to the water itself—affects everything from the amount of water we have to the quality of our water supplies.
Climate change is already having a tremendous impact on water supplies, shrinking glaciers and causing more frequent droughts and flooding. It’s an issue Canada’s provincial premiers must contend with when they meet in Winnipeg for the Council of the Federation from August 4 to 6. The premiers plan to discuss the state of our country’s freshwater supplies and the impact climate change is having on them.
A Senate committee report from 2005, “Water in the West: Under Pressure”, puts the issue in perspective: “Climate change means that precipitation is becoming less reliable, and more of it is expected to come as rain rather than as snow. What snow there is will melt sooner. There are likely to be more big storms and more severe droughts.”
The report, which was based on expert testimony, also notes that summer flows in many Alberta rivers are down by about 40 percent from where they were a century ago. It’s not just a matter of less available water. As John Carey of Environment Canada notes in the report: “When we talk about climate variability we mean less rainfall overall in many areas, but the rain that does come will fall in intense events.”
Dr. Carey states that “what we will face is too much water and too little water—too much in specific times and too little most of the time. We are saying that prairie droughts will be more persistent, and climate change may increase floods in duration and severity.” We’ve seen a clear example of this with the devastating prairie floods this spring and summer.
Even the increased precipitation that occurs with climate change is not enough to make up for losses from melting glaciers and increased evaporation. Glaciers act like bank accounts, storing snow and ice during cool, wet weather and releasing water when we need it most, during hot, dry summers or years of drought. As University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler writes in an article titled “The Myth of Abundant Canadian Water”, “Water scarcity will become one of the most important economic and environmental issues of the 21st century in the western prairie provinces.”
As Dr. Schindler points out, though, “there is much that we can do to manage the problem”. The solutions lie in both individual efforts and action from political leaders. To begin, when provincial leaders meet in Winnipeg, they need to deal with climate change. They need to revisit past commitments to improve energy efficiency and implement clean, renewable energy. They should discuss collective rules for a cap-and-trade system and establish a provincial-territorial climate action secretariat. Premiers should also figure out how to collectively manage water resources and to reduce water use.
On an individual level, Dr. Schindler notes that Canadians use more than twice as much water per capita as Europeans, and many times more than people in the Middle East. Canadians can conserve a lot of water—for example, by installing low-water-use plumbing and by landscaping yards so that they require less water—and governments can encourage water conservation through metering and creating disincentives for high water use.
A range of solutions from all levels of society is required, and those that address climate change—reducing greenhouse gas emissions, putting a price on carbon emissions, increasing clean-energy sources, for example—will create benefits beyond protecting our water supplies and reducing pollution. A recent economic analysis by the Western Climate Initiative showed that a plan to address climate change and foster clean-energy solutions could lead to cost savings of about US$100 billion by 2020.
The premiers must take the issue of climate change and its effect on water seriously when they meet in Winnipeg, and so must we all. We can’t live without water.
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