At this moment whole communities of people in Canada suffer from contaminated wells and dirty source water which lead to a range of major, even fatal, health issues. Long running response measures have been in place, such as rationing and boil water advisories, but that does not attack the problem, or basic access to clean water, head-on.
The Government’s Role
So, what is Canada’s national strategy in dealing with water resource strain? Simply put, there is not a very comprehensive plan being executed. For example, only just this month, the province of Ontario issued a hold on the addition of any bottled water projects while review of permits and impacts is conducted. Note that this “hold” would not restrict current extraction rates and had little to do with the resource strain affecting First Nation communities. It is still commendable for the province to take the measures, particularly because it signals to more transparency and awareness. But more must be done, especially across all provinces. The alternative is that private enterprise would continue to dictate where a tremendous amount of the natural resource is directed. And presently that is proving unsustainable for a large group of people—more than 100,000 members of First Nations in Canada.
Awareness & Action: Learning from the First Nations
In order for the government to do more, it must be held accountable. Transparency directly informs accountability. And in this case, particularly in light of the rapidly growing and evolving bottled-water industry, accountability is necessary for regulation to adapt to industry. The bidding process (for water extraction permits) could certainly change. For example, it must be made more equitable for communities who are presently competing with large corporate entities (for a basic right & resource). It is the role of government to represent the interests of the community. So engagement with the First Nations in the process means giving voice to their rights.
Transparency in this process also boosts public awareness more broadly. And in a time when we, in the western world, are systematically detached from the impacts of so much of our consumption, awareness is crucial. The First Nations embody a very contrasting approach to natural resource management—it is a cultural tradition of First Nations to be environmentally aware and conscious of consumption. This makes it all the more ironic, and frankly tragic, that consumption and over-exhaustion of the resource would impact these communities most harshly.
The country is presented with a unique opportunity to learn from the First Nations. Very real consideration of their symbiotic approach to water use could present not only a pivot in policy relating to human rights but could open new doors to innovation. Private industry does not have to be the enemy here. Water technology development can be aligned and purposed with First Nation holistic design. However, in order to do that, First Nations need more leverage in the national dialogue.
Urgent Public Awareness; Closing the Cultural Gap
Large scale public awareness campaigns often empower smaller communities’ interests. And awareness of water issues on the local level inform and can be reflective of water issues on the national scale. So increased public awareness benefits all parties here. If Canada were to think globally and act locally on the issue of water, it could potentially turn a real problem into an opportunity. Singapore, for example, nearly 40 years ago experienced water crisis. And its policy makers made a conscious decision to turn that problem into strategic public educational pieces on water scarcity and conservation. After many years of propaganda, the city-state experienced a cultural shift in posture toward their environment. And Singapore is now known as a premier water hub on the international stage. Singapore went from extreme water deficit, shipping massive amounts of expensive freshwater into the country, to an innovative producer with potable water surplus today.
Canada right now allows private companies to export freshwater while it fails to meet the basic needs of First Nations domestically. It is time to find a more sustainable solution. Recently, Ontario has been recognized as a center for some significant water technology development. At this very moment a national conference is being held in Ontario acknowledging these kinds of advances and to discuss where the country is going in water development. This would be a unique opportunity for leaders to speak with some conviction about the urgency of the First Nations’ crisis and to highlight the historic relationship and stewardship that First Nations have with the environment, emphasizing it as an example to follow. Would it not be truly noble for Canada to be the first western nation to be characterized by a more holistic and sustainable approach to water development? Let us come together and develop the type of public awareness campaign that would permeate and create a motivation to be so noble and respectful not only of First Nations but of the Nation’s opportunity. The window is closing soon.
Furthermore, increased oversight of government in the process of appropriating water quantity is absolutely necessary. In Elora, Ontario, tests of aquifers will be conducted prior to bottled water providers being permitted to make new withdrawals projects. This is the right thing to do. But this necessary and precautionary measure is not enough and has not been applied to First Nation communities. While a preventative strategy is strongly advised moving forward (and a commendable first step in Elora’s case), it is only part of the solution for the First Nations. Given the long standing critical status of so many Canadians, restricting commercial use while finding a solution seems quite logical. Corporate producers of water must pay their fair share, and this is expected to be part of the dialogue between communities, government and private industry. But first, this must be treated like the emergency that it is. To ignore the urgency is abhorrently objectifying to a large number of a specific cultural group in Canada. There is no excuse.
Adapted from Jordan Lane Gilmore’s fall issue column in the Bay Street Bull magazine
Jordan Lane Gilmore
Jordan Lane Gilmore is a lobbyist and policy advisor to energy and water technology companies and trade groups. He specializes in government relations strategy for NPOs with goals to advance the clean energy economy and he spearheads a variety of industry events, conferences, workshops and forums focused on emerging technologies in the Gulf Coast and Northeast US. He blends his experience in former federal, state, and industry roles to build Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and is committed to turning the growing issue of energy-water collisions into new business opportunity.
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