The United Nations has been observing World Water Day every year on March 22nd since 1993. This day focuses on the importance of freshwater. It is impossible to think about healthy communities, reconciliation, or natural resource development without considering drinking water. For 2020 the theme of World Water Day is ‘Water and Climate Change’, which prompts us to explore how reduced glacier sizes, floods and droughts, and inadequate water governance are impacting the health of B.C. communities and ecosystems, and the availability of drinking water for all. We also consider how we might share the responsibility of protecting this invaluable resource.
Threats to quality, quantity and access
We take water for granted at our own peril. Some communities are more alive to the risks than others as they contend with the threat or the reality of private companies bottling water for export and placing additional stresses on local reserves1,2,3 or of resource extraction that impacts the volume and quality of their water. All too often, tensions between local jobs and secure local water systems are resolved to the detriment of the water.
Climate change projections for most of the province predict significant reductions in the number and size of glaciers, which are critical sources for many watersheds across B.C. Once the glaciers are gone, there will be no comparable, reliable recharge option for those glacier-linked watersheds.
Another significant pressure on water in British Columbia is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), which requires large volumes of water in order to extract natural gas from deep rock formations.4,5 This massive use of water is inextricably linked to the Coastal GasLink pipeline that has gathered so much attention in recent months. The pipeline is intended to transport fracked natural gas from Dawson Creek to the coast. The ability to—and practice of—reclaiming contaminated water used in fracking is limited, applying significant pressure to finite fresh water supplies.6
Even though there are corporations currently bottling and selling drinking water from the Kootenays to the Chilcotin, we assert that water is not a commodity. Imagine how much worse income inequality would be if we allowed community drinking water to be privatized. Water is priceless. There is no life without it.
Water Governance in British Columbia
The number of Indigenous communities without access to drinkable water is a source of shame for Canada that continues long after it should have been definitively rectified. Grey areas related to which level of government is actually responsible in Canadian law for ensuring that the necessities of life are provided for Indigenous communities allow this situation to persist. Communities that go without or experience threats to the source or quality of their water supply are acutely aware of the maze that is water governance.
Like other areas vital to the health of our communities, many levels of government and a multiplicity of agencies and laws are involved in governing water. Any water system that supplies more than one household is designated as a community water system under provincial law. This designation triggers a requirement to ensure that the water supplied to those multiple households meets Canadian drinking water standards. This requirement is generally interpreted to mean that the system must integrate costly water treatment equipment and processes that are often far beyond what a handful of households or a small community can afford. Across the province, local governments are assuming ownership of water systems, but given the hundreds of water systems that exist across the rural landscape, this is not a tenable solution for all municipalities.
Upstream from the water treatment is, of course, the water source. The B.C. Auditor General’s July 2019 report on The Protection of Drinking Water found that the province is “not taking the needed actions to protect drinking water for all British Columbians.” In the Water Sustainability Act, provisions have been in place since 2014 for Water Sustainability Plans. However, these plans require provincial approval and none have been created to date. The Drinking Water Protection Act has the strongest protections for potable water, with the possibility of creating a Drinking Water Protection Plan for an area approved by the Minister of Health. By adequately protecting our water sources, the costs for communities could be reduced for installation and maintenance of treatment systems that seek to ensure potable water. It seems sensible that something as vital to our daily lives and to the health of our ecosystems as water should be viewed with a precautionary approach that errs on the side of protecting its sources.
Towards a shared responsibility
When high-level water governance is not enough, how do communities and residents come together to ensure the sustainability of water for all, including future generations? As climate change becomes more visible, people are continually impacted around the province and the country. What can we do? Scientists tell us that most of British Columbia will experience warmer, wetter winters and hotter, dryer summers. From a water perspective, it’s clear that availability could be limited during the peak growing season, and our individual habits will have to change. Lawns may cease to be practical. Household rainwater collection and grey water tanks will need to expand.
On a larger scale, agriculture and industry have a bigger role to play. Wetlands and lowlands must be protected for their important contributions of holding and filtering rainwaters and flooding, as well as their ability to act as carbon sinks which we will need to employ more and more. We must continue to build compact communities and infill neighbourhoods where walking is an easy choice, thereby reducing both vehicle use and urban sprawl into green spaces and natural water reservoirs.
The role of individuals
We all need access to quality water now and in the long term, so what can we do as Individuals?
We can reject the commodification of water
We can be more conscientious about our use
We can learn about the complexities of water governance
We can embrace good water citizenry
We can work with our Health Authorities and all levels of government to improve the policy and safeguards for our water
It’s fascinating to watch folks cancel their travel plans, prepare for possible quarantines, and establish new habits like proper hand washing (those who didn’t previously work in health care!) in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This proves that populations can and will adapt as required. The threat of climate change impacts can feel too vague or too scary for us to wrap our heads around, yet we feel empowered to act in our own—and our neighbours’—best interests when it comes to infectious disease. Let’s borrow some of that confidence and redirect it towards our most precious resource. Check out https://www.worldwaterday.org/ Everyone has a role to play.
Abra Brynne is the Executive Director of the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council and has lived rurally most of her life, currently in the unceded territory of the Sinixt and Ktunaxa.
Council of Canadian Academies. (2014). Environmental impacts of shale gas extraction in Canada: The expert panel on harnessing science and technology to understand the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction. Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies, 48. https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/shalegas_fullreporten.pdf