Canadians will face a major crisis due to water shortages in the coming years unless we drastically rethink our water usage policies, a Canadian water expert said on Saturday. Bob Sandford spoke at McGill University as part of their Uncharted Waters Conference.
According to Sandford, a growing global crisis based on water shortages will spill over into North America in the coming decades. “Right now, global human population growth rates are highest where there is the least water. We’re converging on a problem of global water scarcity and food shortage.”
The problems of water scarcity and food shortage are actually really one problem though. Agricultural production in many countries is limited by available fresh water resources, and food production requires huge amounts of water. “We eat about 70 times as much water as we drink. In the past we had a lot of direct water transfers between regions. Increasingly we’re going to be transferring water indirectly through food production,” said Sandford.
Canada’s comparatively large resources of fresh water mean that as shortages around the world get worse, the world will increasingly look to Canada, especially as an exporter of food. But it’s not so simple, according to Sandford. Canada has many problems that urgently need to be addressed.
“We don’t have nearly as much fresh water as we think we do,” said Sandford. “We have to dispel the myth of limitless water resources. We’re world renowned water wasters and polluters.” Much of the problem lies in the fact that while Canada has around 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources, according to Sandford, we have less than seven per cent of its renewable resources. Much of our water was left behind in the form of glaciers, which are now melting and disappearing due to global warming, which could have grave effects for Canada’s ecosystems.
As some of Canada’s non-renewable water sources dry up, it will have great effects on the ecosystems that rely upon them. “What we’re talking about is the drying out and desertification of the Western prairies,” said Sandford. “This can lead to extremely difficult public policy trade-offs. Many people would literally have to starve to meet the need to provide enough water for environmental protection standards.”
From Canmore, Alta., Sandford is the Canadian chair of the United Nations International Decade “Water for Life” committee as well as having written multiple books on water history and conservation. He also serves as an advisor or board member to many different water policy panels and advisory committees. While he did not go in depth into methods that could solve the crisis, he said Canada needed to cooperate more with the United States on conservation issues, beginning with the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty in 2014. He called upon the crowd of mostly university students to get involved.
“Your generation will make the real progress of dealing with our water issues. It will be up to your generation to fix these problems,” he told the crowd.