Why We Must Do Better in Protecting Freshwater Supply

Article excerpt


Minister of the Environment

An abundant supply has led Canadians to over-use and abuse the world's largest supply of freshwater. Excessive use, waste, pollution and diversions pose environmental, health, economic and social risks that have not been adequately assessed. These are among the reasons for a prohibition on bulk water removal from watersheds, for either domestic use or exports. Speech to Water Resources Allocation Association, Greenwich, Nova Scotia, June 23, 1999.

It is a great pleasure to be here today to speak to a group of professionals who do so much to ensure that Canadians enjoy safe, clean water.

One often hears how Canadians are a people whose history is tied to water. How First Nations, explorers and traders made their way along our rivers and lakes. How our cities sprang up where rivers came together or met the seas.

These observations are true but do not go far enough. The history of the entire human species is intimately tied to water. All the great ancient civilizations sprang up on riverbanks -- the Nile, the Tiber and Euphrates, to name a few.

Indeed, your professional predecessors enjoy the same historical pedigree. They were a small number of people, who, over the centuries, learned the secrets of the hydrological cycle and mastered hydraulics.

Their societies saw them as a chosen few, people whose magical knowledge gave them access to divine powers that my predecessors, the rulers of their day, were keen to possess. Water specialists like you were routinely hired -- or imprisoned -- and put to work on royal fountains and such.

Why royal fountains, you ask? Because kings wanted to appropriate the divine authority that water held.

Why this link between water and the divine?

Because all societies recognized water's fundamental role in preserving and renewing life. Accordingly, they gave it ceremonial, sacred status. We see this today in everything from the Christian baptismal font to the Hindu tradition of ceremonial cleansing in the Ganges.

These ancestors did not have your advanced scientific knowledge of the intricacies of the hydrological cycle, but they knew that water is more than a precious resource. Water is life itself.

All this to say that Canadians' deeply rooted love of water is neither new nor specific to Canada. What was pleasantly new to our ancestors, though, was our country's seemingly limitless supply. Lake after lake, river after river, there seemed to be no end. They always thought that they could do as they pleased because there always seemed to be more.

As early as the 19th century, however, some began to see the cost of human waste on our water and on the people and other species that needed it.

It was then that your predecessors started work to ensure we have clean water and to limit the impacts of pollution. Hats off to your predecessors. In their day, they were ahead of their time.

Unfortunately, too many Canadians still think our water is limitless. We say it's priceless, but we act like it's dirt cheap. We waste it and pollute it. We don't think about real costs or environmental consequences. And we act without a thought about what we will leave to our children.

We must do better. Environmental degradation is not a "problem" to "fix". It is a sign of fundamental imbalance in the way we live and a powerful sign of people who are not looking to the future.

I want my grandchildren to enjoy access to water, not just for their own uses, but because of its fundamental environmental benefits. I want them to look back at our decisions and nod their heads in approval and gratitude.

The water debate must be comprehensive. To focus on one part, like water exports, for example, is to deny other critical aspects of the water resource. We must be ambitious. We must look at all the water issues. …