Fresh water conservation should be on the radar this election…

  • What would you answer if you were asked, “What is Canada’s most important natural resource?”

  Would you answer oil, given the importance of the resource to the country’s economy?  Perhaps forests, farmland, or fisheries would top your list.

 For the majority of Canadians asked in a January 2011 Ipsos Reid poll on Canadian Water Attitudes, fresh water was the clear winner. More than half (55 per cent) of respondents chose water as the country’s most important natural resource, with farmland (15 per cent), forests (13 per cent) and oil (12 per cent) rounding out the top four.

 When provided with a list of possible issues of concern to Canadians, more people indicated that they were concerned with the long-term supply and quality of Canada’s fresh water than the stability of the financial markets. And 90 per cent of those asked believe that serious impacts for the national economy and prosperity of Canadians will result if nothing is done to improve the management of fresh water in Canada.

Clearly, Canadians care about fresh-water issues in Canada, and understand that a steady supply of clean water is necessary to maintain a healthy and vibrant economy.

 Similar polling numbers are reported year after year in Canada, and yet the issue of fresh-water management is rarely discussed on the campaign trail or by governments in power. As is often the case, the environment is trailing well behind health care and the economy as an issue in this federal election.

 Why do important issues, like improving management of fresh water in Canada, fall off the radar screen during elections? The Ipsos Reid poll tells us that 90 per cent or more of Canadians, coast to coast, agree that we should develop stricter rules and standards for managing water use by industry and municipalities, and that we should make the protection of nature and wildlife a top priority.

 And 88 per cent of Canadians agree that water management decisions should be better informed by science. With numbers like these, wouldn’t a federal water strategy be a home run for any political party?

 I guess the cynic in me is not surprised that federal candidates are not focusing on fresh-water issues. A national strategy for managing fresh water requires clear vision and strong leadership. Difficult choices have to be made, and any new plan requires funding.

  These are hurdles that are difficult to overcome in the current political climate. Canadians too may be reluctant to share the costs – for example, while water supply is a key issue for Canadians, less than half of those polled feel we should charge more for household water use to encourage conservation.

 Perhaps we can learn from and build on past attempts. In 1987, the Federal Water Policy was developed through an extensive consultation process, and received generally positive reviews from private, government and non-governmental sectors.

Its overall objective was to “encourage the use of fresh water in an efficient and equitable manner consistent with the social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

It was forward-looking and recognized that fresh-water management is “dependent upon a scientifically-sound knowledge base developed in co-operation with all responsible jurisdictions and the private sector.”  It outlined several strategies that were to be implemented by all federal departments. I write “were” because, sadly, the 1987 Water Policy was never implemented.

But it was a strong document, and could be updated and used as a framework for a new national strategy. Based on the polling numbers I’ve described, I believe that Canadians would support such an initiative. For many, it would be a point of national pride to know that Canada was, once again, a global leader on issues concerning fresh-water management and conservation.

Article by Andrew Paterson – an environmental scientist living in Huntsville.  His research examines the impacts of environmental stressors on the water quality and ecology.