Water supply isn’t the whole story
A report released on July 16, 2013 by the Fraser Institute has sent more than few ripples through the water community in Canada. The main message in Canadian Environmental Indicators: Water is that Canada’s water supply is abundant and water quality is improving. The report runs through the tried and true statistics about Canada’s vast water supply and Canadians’ personal water use to conclude that while we use a lot, we aren’t going to run out. Well, of course we are not – water is a finite resource: there is the same amount on the planet today as there was when we humans first arrived on the scene.
It is important to recognize that much of this vast water supply is required to sustain the health of the rivers and lakes that are so fundamental to Canadian culture and communities. This gets to the heart of my concern with the report: like so many before it, it approaches the assessment of water sustainability through an oversimplified ‘resource’ lens. In doing so, it misses the fact that this same ‘resource’ is fundamental to biodiversity and ecosystem integrity – or to put it in plain terms, to the health of our rivers, lakes and streams. Water binds us to nature. The water we use for drinking, growing food and producing energy is the same water that forms fish habitat, the same water that we swim in and paddle upon.
The report paints a picture of Canada’s waters with a very broad brush stroke. Such general overviews developed from a narrow water-as-economic-resource perspective can lead to oversimplified and even dangerous conclusions – in this case that everything is okay. These high-level analyses and the resulting conclusions mask the very real challenges and opportunities at the level of local watersheds and water bodies, the scale at which people experience and interact with our waters. In some places, these waters may indeed be in good health; in others, they likely are not. In both cases, there is a need for action, either protection or restoration.
To better understand which action is required for specific waters, we must take a deeper look below the surface. This is something we are working on at WWF. Over the past year, we have developed an ecosystem-based freshwater health assessment framework that we intend to use to paint a clearer picture, with a finer brush, of the health of our waters. This approach will ultimately allow us to build an accurate assessment of Canada’s water health on the national scale based on detailed local results.
Stay tuned, because we will start rolling out our freshwater health assessments this September!