Governments must implement water demand management

Governments must implement water demand management

By Oliver M. Brandes and Ellen Reynolds

“Water will become Canada’s foremost ecological crisis early in this century,” says David Schindler, Canada’s leading water expert and an internationally recognized ecologist.

It’s indisputable: water is in ever-mounting demand and diminishing supply. Yet, Canadians are some of the most gluttonous water users in the world. Many believe it’s a limitless resource and that the proverbial well will never run dry. But water availability, in a form suitable for humans and ecosystem functioning, is under pressure from increasing consumption and shrinking supplies through pollution, climate change and poor management.

Tomorrow’s arid reality may not be so distant. On average, Canadian city dwellers use 326 litres of water per day, twice what the average European urbanite uses.

But when we start talking about this profligate water use or seek practical sustainable solutions, things begin to get murky. Some Canadian municipalities don’t believe in the need for water conservation, simply clinging to an outdated “myth of abundance.” Canada may not be running out of water but, increasingly, many regions face seasonal drought and a reality formerly unheard of in Canadian cities—water scarcity!

The issues of water conservation are often oversimplified, with opponents arguing that spending millions on water metering or other conservation measures is unnecessary when we can use bigger reservoirs, longer pipes and deeper pumps. This “supply-side management” addresses future growth by seeking out new sources of water through expanded infrastructure. However, this approach rarely considers the full economic and ecological consequences of not conserving water, or the broader sustainability imperative. Politicians and water managers alike are missing a major opportunity. Conservation is the next best and cheapest source of “new” water for most of Canada.

Demand management is innovative, but not new. Many provinces have conservation plans, and even in the federal water policy, developed in 1987, conservation and demand management are key. The problem is that, for the most part, these plans and policies are not implemented and little progress has been made.

To overcome the current inaction, government priorities must, at a minimum, include improved data collection, universal metering, infrastructure grants linked to effective demand management programs, provincial plumbing codes that reflect the latest innovative technologies, water allocations that protect ecological function and basic human needs, sufficient capacity fro demand management at all levels of government, and meaningful stakeholder participation.

The shift towards a Canadian “water ethic” and onto a sustainable path for water management will only happen with leadership and concerted action by all levels of government. To avoid the realization of Schindler’s dire prediction, Canada must become a world leader in how it uses water; not how much is used.

Oliver M. Brandes is a research associate and director of the Urban Water Demand Management at the POLIS Project at the University of Victoria. Ellen Reynolds is the project’s communication coordinator.