We scrambled to move sand and gravel with the sides of our gumboots. The faster the rainwater tore down the sidewalk’s leaf-littered gutters, the faster we jumped around to dam it. Three of us scraped more debris into place as the clear water quickly pooled into the paved roadway. In rainy Kitimat on the northern British Columbia coast, the fluid fascination of water pulled us in during the long three blocks home from elementary school.
In 1993, the United Nations declared March 22 as International Water Day. People are encouraged to turn off their taps for the day. A small gesture, perhaps just a single step, yet life is about continually redirecting ourselves towards our goals.
Kitimat had no shortage of water. Located on the ocean, near lakes, a couple of rapid clean rivers, and within sight of a year-round glacier on Mt. Elizabeth, the earth cradled us in the damp abundance of the coastal temperate rain forest. When I was a child, our tap-water prompted puzzling conversations by adults about how good the town’s water tasted. Of course it did; how else could water taste?
A billion people or more lack access to water safe for drinking. The UN’s World Water Council, every three years since 1997, holds a World Water Forum, with the nearest one scheduled for late March 2015. NGOs and other groups highlight issues such as the role of gender in family access to safe water. In dry locations in Africa, for example, girls and women must pack water daily, sometimes taking up to two hours for the trip and exposing themselves to sexual assault. This needed survival chore interferes with their education, personal and family betterment, and finally to their nations’ development.
A narrow, short road led through the bush up to the forbidden water tower at the town’s edge, and we all knew where it was, I climbed the ladder up, just to try it. OK, we weren’t supposed to go up that road, but I had no understanding that fooling with the water tower might create a problem. There was a disconnect between that and the water I drank or brushed my teeth in or used to make tea for my parents. Kitimat, a Haisla name that means “people of the snow,” averaged the highest annual precipitation in Canada, 100 inches or more, including snow. We flushed as needed, and freely watered our grassy lawns uring the summers. Girls and women never faced how being without water brought challenges to education, wellbeing and autonomy.
Less than 3% of municipally treated water is actually used for drinking., according to Environment Canada. Of the rest, toilets use up 30%, bathing about 30%, and the rest to uses such as gardening or washing the car, the BC government says. Why not run the tap as needed? We are blessed with more than 290 unique watersheds, says the province.
In San Francisco, during an urgent water shortage in the early 1990s, a city campaign was launched to encourage residents to lessen water use.We learned to run the taps less. One rule that brought a lot of noise forbade placing glasses of fresh water at tables in restaurants unless specifically requested. The most communal difficult challenge was aesthetic: “Yellow is mellow, but if it’s brown, flush I down.” Signs went up in restaurants and workplaces. Awareness and compliance were high in that well-educated and green-leaning city. While living there, I first learned that homes were metered for water usage and paid. We did grumble that 80% of the state’s water usage was agricultural, but what can you do, it is the fruit and wine and nut and vegetable and cotton basket for much of the world,
The Water for Life Decade was launched on World Water Day in 2005, to run through 2015, and bring attention to the UN’s water-related programs and women’s participation, Women grow most of the subsistence crops in the world, requiring water. It’s hard to provide sanitation for your children or yourself without water,and inadequate sanitation leads to disease and in times of war , according to the UN,when a drinkable water becomes urgent, disease kills more civilians than the conflict itself.
In Kitimat, as teenagers we’d hurry down to splash in the cool YWCA pool in the long hot days of summer, squealing and joyous in the sunny, constantly replenished pool. Victoria has numerous public and private pools, where I take aqua-fit, friends swim, and others train for competitions or attend for aquatherapy for arthritis or other health conditions. Outdoors, in clean-water-abundant B.C., I’ve swum in oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, and ponds for pleasure, while girls in Africa walk two hours each way to carry a few gallons home for the day.
Visualize 330-litre containers of milk in front of you, or 72.5 imperial gallons. The average Canadian adult drinks only about 1.5 litres, or almost 50 ounces, of water a day, including trips to the local coffee shop and all other drinks, including coffee, tea and juice, says Health Canada. By contrast, the same average Canadian uses about 330 litres of water each day. Wait, there is more. The B.C. provincial government says we use much more water than that national average. We use 50% more at 490 litres per person per day – not including industrial or agricultural use of water. We are very generous with it; unheedingly wasteful.
And yet water is important to generosity My preteen daughter had a friend over playing; she came into the kitchen and helped herself to a glass of water. As she was leaving, I asked her if she had offered her friend one “Why?” she said, surprised. “Because if you are thirsty, your guest probably is too. If you are hungry, it is just the same” On entering homes for a brief drop off or quick exchange, or vice versa, it is a pleasure to offer or receive a simple glass of cold water. It is less formal than almost anything else, yet more intimate, no ritual for ritual’s sake, just me looking after your small homely need. A few years ago, First Metropolitan United Church in downtown Victoria, where I live, was among the first to ban bottled water on its premises. No one in the church or the community groups that utilize space there grumbled; people easily moved into that expanding concept of care for our home
Canada’s residents use considerably more water per person than many other developed countries. Canada’s per capita water consumption is 65 percent above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average, second only to the United States. Developing countries typically use 10 times less water than developed countries, says the OECD. We are just “swimming” in it. This gift of abundant, clean water makes it hard to understand the plight of those in water-short areas.
So in water-rich BC, why should we care what we use? About 8% of global energy generation is used for pumping, treating and transporting water to various consumers. In our province, electricity costs less than almost any other North American jurisdiction, because we have large hydroelectric developments. We use part of that power to supply usable water. Conserving water reduces resource use.
In addition, in terms of water purity, we all live downstream from someone, somewhere. A cousin on a farm outside Quesnel has expressed her growing concerns over the last few years about a declining groundwater level. Her groundwater now looks terrible; it leaves irremediable dark rusty stains on the tub and fixtures, and she won’t drink it raw. As more and more people populate the countryside, they drill wells, and farmers have less water for their stock and crops. An estimated 750,000 British Columbians drink groundwater, says the BC government. Hundreds of groundwater aquifers provide water for industries, municipalities and rural homeowners in B.C. We live in Canada’s only province that does not regulate groundwater, but regulations will come into force in 2015.
Salmonkeepers on Vancouver Island work to remove shopping carts and other debris, to clean up salmon streams so the fish can spawn yearly and keep up the fisheries. The Nazko First Nation an hour west of Quesnel found unhealthful arsenic levels in its water several years ago. When a neighbour in my building showers for 20 minutes, I feel disturbed—is this necessary? As human beings, we all live in community.
Now I take expired bottles of painkiller to the pharmacist and hope for responsible disposal that won’t release it into the water cycle. I take paint to the appropriate recycle site, take shorter showers, and have a small, water-conserving dishwasher. I do a tiny bit, but actually I appall myself. How self-satisfied I have been, bathed in abundance. But the supply is actually finite, and with increasing population everywhere and climate change, demand for water is increasing.
B.C’s new Water Sustainability Act ( Bill 18) passed final reading in the Legislature in April 2014. It is expected to come into force gradually after April 2015. Because the new Act is large and complex, the government says it plans to implement it in phases. Regulations on groundwater, water fees and rentals have been set as priorities. The website is engage.gov.bc.ca/watersustainabilityact.
Kitimat’s aluminum smelter opened in the new planned town in 1954. The smelter ran on cheap power from damming the Nechako River and flooding a large amount of wilderness. Now, some years, the water level runs so low in the river it endangers the fish population. Neither does it rain as much in Kitimat these days. The weather has changed, and mountains in the region also sport clearcuts which the locals blame for curtailed precipitation. Multiple proposals for LNG and other shale oil development in the area will have large impacts on fresh and ocean water. The area is already like many others, with threatened watersheds and rivers once abundant with life. We won’t step in those rivers again.
We are past the days of gum-booted child’s play making dams willy-nilly. Days of heedless water use have turned to days for serious conservation.