Water: the stuff of life. Over 70% of our planet consists of water, and along with food and shelter it is one of the most basic requirements for human survival. But most of this is saltwater, and in reality only about 0.3% of the water on Earth is actually usable for humanity. This is still a lot of water – but supplies are dwindling in some areas, threatening water security, and with recent droughts in California and British Columbia it’s more important than ever that the water we use in our daily lives is not wasted and is of high quality.
Third World Problems
According to the World Health Organization, there are around 1.1 billion people who do not have access to improved water sources, and 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation. That’s a staggering number, and it exists because most of the aforementioned clean and useable water is unattainable, buried in soil moisture and in aquifers, too deep to reach or expensive to access. Contamination from pathogens like bacteria, viruses and parasites, as well as various toxic chemicals, is a huge problem in many developing nations; more than 840,000 people annually die worldwide from water-related diseases.
Strides have been made to solve this problem: the introduction of water filters can lower the incidence of such contamination dramatically. For example, ceramic water filters have been shown to reduce diarrheal disease incidence by 60–70%. However, ceramic filters are not perfect: their pores are too wide to be very effective against every type of pathogen, such as viruses and chemicals like chlorine. More advanced filters such as membrane or reverse osmosis filters are far more effective at removing contaminants.
Not a Drop to Drink
What does this have to do with Canada? Well, Canadian water suffers from the same issues as the water in developing countries, but the technology here is much more advanced. Because the vast majority of the water that Canadians use comes from their taps, provinces and municipalities have to coordinate water filtration on an industrial scale, both for producing drinking water and for the treatment of wastewater. Producing clean, drinkable water and halting the contamination from wastewater has been thrown into sharp focus recently thanks to the ongoing water shortage in California and the recent descent into a level 3 drought rating in BC. Streams and rivers have been closed to fishing, and in California water use has been reduced by nearly 29%. The restrictions will help to keep water coming from the taps, but could have implications for wastewater treatment that relies on higher flows.
Drought aside, the difficulty of obtaining clean water is an issue primarily in rural areas, but particularly with regard to First Nations communities: Health Canada still asks approximately 120 communities to boil their water, and there is a good chance that water systems in around 85 communities could simply break down. Without a proper regulatory framework and adequate filtration systems, this increased risk to public health in First Nations communities will continue.
Taking To the Bottle
What about bottled water? Surely that’s a simple solution to the problem? Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Making a plastic bottle causes a significant amount of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, ultimately making the drought problem worse. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that transporting the bottles from far-flung places such as Fiji and Italy also adds to their carbon cost, while tap water is usually kept in a watershed and has to travel less than 10 km on average to reach its destination. Further, pharmaceuticals giant Nestlé and other companies have recently come under fire for being able to bottle water ‘too cheaply’ as the province’s citizens are asked to reduce the lengths of their showers and stop watering their lawns.
To cap it all, disposal is a huge problem because many plastic bottles never end up being recycled; Stewardship Ontario, for example, reports that 44% of plastic bottles – over 30,000 tons – ended up in landfills in 2009. Bottled water companies spend millions of dollars lobbying against deposit programs that would require them to take on some of the costs associated with recycling. But even if more bottles were recycled, recycling still requires energy and has a larger carbon footprint than the treatment and distribution of public tap water.
What Can I Do?
Right now teachers are waiting to educate 118,000 Canadian students about drinking water quality issues and their solutions. At safewater.org, it’s possible to sponsor water kits for schools, which will help students to be educated about drinking water quality issues and solutions. After all, they will become the engineers, health officials, community leaders, politicians, teachers, and scientists of the future.
It’s crucial that water safety and security become part of public consciousness, and that the best possible steps are taken to ensure clean, drinkable water for everyone. It’s the stuff of life; and we can’t live without it.