Water woes

New Brunswick author Marq de Villiers on why water woes aren’t just a Third World problem
Water Woes
Photo credit: Joseph Muise

New Brunswick author Marq de Villiers on why water woes aren’t just a Third World problem 

My aunt, visiting from South Africa, quickly saw the most obvious difference between the Canadian countryside and the African plains. “In South Africa,” she pointed out, “you know when you’re approaching a farm or a village, because there are trees there. In Canada, you know when you get to a farm because there is a clearing there.” In one place, if you want trees you have to plant them, and carefully nurture them. In the other, you have to hack them back.

The difference, of course, is the availability of water.

When I moved to Canada I was greatly envious of the abundance of water – anyone who came from an arid place would be. But I was also somewhat appalled, because Canadians treated their water with a carelessness bordering on the criminal – dumping rubbish and poisons into rivers and lakes without apparent thought for the consequences. Hardly anywhere in Canada was usage metered, and water cost virtually nothing to consumers. As a result, Canadians used prodigious amounts of the stuff. It was the very antithesis of the conservation ethic.

It was this stark difference that impelled me to write my first book on water, back in 1999. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource book was an attempt to understand the “water world” – how much water there was, where it was (and wasn’t) and to assess the risks of running out altogether.

Since then, dire stories of the world’s water crisis have become depressingly commonplace. The World Bank has taken to calling it “the dismal arithmetic of water”, by which they essentially mean that many parts of the world are increasingly bereft of safe, clean water, and that the shortages are getting worse, with no end in sight. Combine these stories with accounts of droughts ravaging many regions and, by contrast, floods ravaging other parts, and it is all too easy to believe that doom is nigh – or at least nigh-ish.

Which is why I’ve come back to the topic. Can things really be that bad? Reassuringly, my answer is a qualified no. I put it this way: “Sure, it’s true, as a recent UN report put it, that global water use has grown at more than twice the rate of the world’s population for the last century, and it’s true that we are overdrafting many of our water resources at an unsustainable rate, and it’s true that we are still polluting water that we should have cleaned up decades ago. But no, we’re not necessarily doomed.”

So is my latest, Back to the Well: Rethinking the Future of Water, a good-news book?  Not quite. But I do argue that if we can avoid the most deeply irrelevant ideological quarrels to which the water world is so prone (the notion of a callous Big Water cartel that would reserve clean water for the rich, paranoia about bulk water transfers), a wide range of available techniques and conservationist practices will take us very close to solution.

What about Atlantic Canada? If we have plenty of water (and we do), why should we bother to conserve? If we cut back on our consumption, how does that benefit, say, water-starved Syria? Water thrift in one place benefits only the thrifty, no one else. Cutting back in New Brunswick won’t get a drop to Haiti – or even to PEI for that matter. Yemen’s water problems are catastrophic for Yemen, Mali’s for Mali. But Mali’s problems are not catastrophic for Haiti, or Bolivia or Lubbock, Texas. The shrinking Rio Grande cannot be filled by water thrift in Denmark; polluted rivers in China cannot be scrubbed by America’s Clean Waters Act. Water thrift in Nova Scotia is a good thing – but it will benefit no one but Nova Scotians, who don’t really need the boost. So why bother?

Here’s why: At home, I could use as much water as I wanted without depriving anyone else. But even my small well uses an electric pump to distribute the water, and that electricity is generated in our province largely by fossil fuels. So it is not without cost. And multiplied by millions, it has a real negative ecological effect that is, indeed, global in scope.

Further, water problems may not seep across borders and into other jurisdictions, but attitudes do. And an attitude of entitlement, of profligacy, and of waste is surely contagious. That is a global problem.

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