Three Canadian Water Myths

Ralph Pentland, author of Down the Drain: How we are Failing to Protect our Water Resources, debunks three of the biggest myths about Canada's water resources.
By: /
June 24, 2013
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One could look at this year's record flooding in southern Alberta and think that the biggest threat posed by climate change is too much water. But that would be a serious mistake according to Ralph Pentland, co-author of the new book Down the Drain: How we are Failing to Protect our Water Resources, acting chair of the Canadian Water Issues Council at the University of Toronto, and a member of the Forum for Leadership on Water. In Down the Drain, he and Chris Wood debunk many of the myths about Canada's water resources and related problems. Below, we asked him to highlight three of the biggest.

Myth 1: Canada’s water resources are almost infinite

Canadians perceive our resources to be vast and infinite. What the public fails to recognize is that we have a lot of water, but we don’t have the most water. Brazil and the Amazon River have twice as much water as Canada, for example. Because we think we have a big, empty country, we overuse what we have. We don’t pay attention. The way the issues are changing today – things like climate change, resource extractions, the oil sand, toxic pollutions, soups of chemicals in the environment – being a big country doesn’t matter when that’s what we’re confronted with.

Myth 2: Canada ranks high on conservation, environmental, and water safety metrics

If you compare toxic substances and releases into the environment from Canada and the United States, our industrial output of toxic substances is, on a per capita basis, much higher than America's. Reports from think tanks across the political spectrum – from C.D. Howe to the Conference Board of Canada to the David Suzuki Foundation – all show this to be the case. In rankings of environmental performance, Canada falls near the bottom, 23rd or 24th out of 25 surveyed countries.

In Europe, chemicals are well-managed. In Canada and the U.S., the management of chemicals at the point of production or import into the country needs more examination. Chemicals are ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in our system. Economic analysis is often conducted even if scientific reports indicate that imported chemicals have a negative environmental impact. In Europe, it’s done the opposite way. Their mechanism for reviewing chemicals and legalizing their usage there is rigorous.

Our book compares green policies in Canada, Europe, and the United States. In Europe, private entities are encouraged to look for green energy alternatives. For every dangerous chemical, there’s an alternative. We need to force our companies to seek those alternatives.

Another difference: in the U.S., there are national pollution standards. Canada and Australia are the only countries in the world that don’t have national water standards. We have guidelines from a Federal-Provincial committee. Three provinces follow them. They’re not obliged to, or obliged to report to any oversight body.

It is difficult for Canadians to understand the impact of environmental conservation efforts. On a per capita basis, five times as many Canadians get bacterial sickness from water than in the U.S. If you compare us with Britain, which is 60 percent larger than us, they have 30 percent less illness from drinking water.

Myth 3: Canada is behind other OECD countries in scientific research on resource conservation

Our science is repressed. This is evident in our policies regarding the Alberta oil sands. It’s a huge development that impacts an area as big as Florida. And the effects of pollutants go far beyond that. But the monitoring is extremely poor. The government has chosen to contract out scientific surveys to industry scientists who cannot provide objective analysis of environmental impact. The oversight committee, RAMP (Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program), was so badly managed that groups like the First Nations representatives dropped out. Studies have been inadequate. Instances such as rotting fish covered in lesions have been left unreported by overseers and by our national media.

We know the situation is bad because university professors and independent researchers see the impact of these major resource extraction projects, but their research doesn’t receive enough attention. There needs to be better communication between university scientists and the mainstream media so that objective and comprehensive scientific reporting can be shared with the public. So we can, like other states have attempted to do, assess the risk of these projects.

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