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Being Better Stewards of Our Water


Water.  It is the most important natural resource in our lives, but there isn’t as much of it around as you’d think.  At least, not the “good” kind.

True, water covers 70% of our planet, but of all the water on Earth, 97.5% is saltwater (which we can’t drink) and only 2.5% is freshwater (which we can drink).  Making matters worse, 68.7% of the Earth’s freshwater is in the form of ice and snow in the Arctic, Antarctic and on mountains.  Do the math and you come to the conclusion that only one percent of the water on Earth is available for our consumption.  And although citizens of some countries (like Canada) have easy access to potable freshwater, more than a billion people on this planet do not have adequate access to clean water.

Taking all of this into consideration, you would think that a developed nation like Canada would be doing its best to protect and preserve the relatively small amount of fresh water that we have.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  According to David Suzuki and Ian Hanington,

More than a billion people in the world survive on just five liters a day, less than the amount of a typical North American toilet flush. The average Canadian uses 335 litres a day, more than double the average for similar industrialized countries. In fact, we use more in Canada than in any country except the U.S.

Image: The Conference Board of Canada.

Image: The Conference Board of Canada.

According to The Conference Board of Canada, industry is our greatest water user and our “excessive water consumption can be attributed to the lack of widespread water conservation practices and water pricing that does not promote efficiency”.

Knowing all of this, industrial activities such as the extraction of tar sands oil and hydraulic fracturing seem even more ridiculous.

Extracting bitumen from tar sands not only requires a large amount of energy, but the process also uses up to three barrels of freshwater (taken from the Athabasca river) per barrel of bitumen produced.  And here is what the leftover water (aka “tailings”) looks like:

Something tells me that water is no longer potable.

Hydraulic fracturing is a completely different beast.  “Fracking”, as it is also known, is used to extract natural gas out of rock formations deep underground.  A well is dug thousands of feet down, then thousands of feet horizontally through the rock formation in question.  Then, up to 30 million litres of freshwater (taken from lakes and rivers) is mixed with a cocktail of chemicals (most of them toxic, some of them carcinogenic) and pumped into the well at high pressures in order to “frack” (or break) the rock and release the natural gas.  Each well can be “fracked” as much as 18 times.  That’s up to 540 million litres of water per well.  And, according to EcoWatch, all of that water is “unrecoverable once it’s blasted into the earth, and out of the water cycle for good”.

Waste water from hydraulic fracturing.  Photo:

Waste water from hydraulic fracturing. Photo:


Obviously, making better choices about how we use water for industrial purposes is an important part of the water conservation puzzle.  However, water conservation also means making better us of freshwater in our homes and our neighbourhoods.  Rather than “reduce, reuse, recycle”, when talking about water we need to think of “substitution, regeneration and reduction”.

Substitution involves using low-quality water rather than drinkable water when possible.  For example, why use perfectly clean water to flush your #1 and #2?  In Honk Kong, most homes use seawater for that.  And if you have gardens you like to water, why not use what you’ve collected in your rain barrel.



Regeneration means cleaning up low-quality water instead of simply flushing it away.  This can be done both small scale (for a home) or large scale (for entire cities).

Finally, reduction is simply using as little water as we can.  At home this can mean turning off the tap while your brushing your teeth or buying low-flow toilets.  But, on a larger scale, it means maintaining our water infrastructure so that it can work as efficiently as possible.

Water is the one natural resource that we literally cannot live without.  So lets start being smarter about how we use it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Danniel Plourde permalink
    2012/09/04 8:24 pm

    Thank you Joce for the eye-opening article.

    We as Canadian do not always think of fresh water as a finite resource. Living in Ottawa is a good example of this. Two years ago, the city campaigned to reduce our use of city water. The campaign was so successful that it created a revenue issue for the city. As a lessons learned, when we experienced the drought this last summer, some wise city counsellors asked the Ottawa citizen to keep on watering their lawn… so that revenue would continue to come-in.

    One of the other points I would add to your article is the overuse of groundwater and the depletion of groundwater system that took centuries for nature to create. Example of this is the Las Vegas area, Mexico City and Saudi Arabia where gardens and golf courses are created from groundwater source. What will happen when these systems are dried-up? Where will we get water for its population and for the maintaining of waterfalls and green spaces for the few riches? When glaciers, thanks to climate change, disappear and river systems are dried-up?

    • 2012/09/05 4:11 am

      Interesting situation in Ottawa! My gut reaction to that is maybe they should raise the cost to customers… Although, if you are so desperate for money that you are encouraging citizens to water their lawns during a drought, not only are you an irresponsible civil servant, but you really need to rework you budget!
      And, great points about the depletion of ground water.

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