The world water crisis and what that means for us
// Colin Spensley

Forget the tanking economy and rising food costs; forget the Iranian nuclear arms scare, sky-rocking emissions and everything in between. The most real threat for humanity comes from something we often take for granted: our dwindling water supply. This is something we frequently overlook: as Environment Canada states on their website, Canada holds seven per cent of the world's fresh water but is also one of the largest consumers of this precious resources.

Residents of a large part of Canada can almost be forgiven for their lack of compassion for the dry, arid regions present in the rest of the world. We are surrounded by water, with lakes, rivers, and streams pumping an inexhaustible amount of fresh water through pipes, out of our taps and down our throats. Unfortunately, we make up a very small percentage of the world population. While we are presently surrounded by H2O, the significant percentage of the global population faces a daily struggle to obtain clean water.


Much like the basic biological make up of humans, the earth is made up of 70 per cent water. Of that percentage, only three per cent of the Earth’s water is drinkable, with 97 per cent remaining in our oceans. That meager three per cent, however, has managed to act as our lifeline for as long as humankind has existed on this planet. Our rivers, lakes, aquifers, streams and reservoirs have allowed us to expand our civilizations well beyond the limit of sustainability. Unfortunately, international corporations, agriculture and national governments are exploiting what fresh water we have left.

It is estimated that even in economically developed nations like the United States, regions like southern California and Nevada could potentially run out of fresh water within 20 to 50 years at the current rate of expansion.

Areas like this often use a “toilet to tap” method of water recycling in which waste water is pumped into aquifers, filtered, treated and pumped back out the tap. The risk of contamination is high with many viruses and bacteria not being eliminated by sanitization. These bugs cause between 500,000 and seven million United States citizens to become sick from contaminated water each year.

Outside of North America, 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe and clean drinking water, leading to more than two million deaths every year directly related to water, many of which are children. The documentary For Love of Water (FLOW) goes into detail about the varying water situations around the world.


In countries such as India, what little fresh water they do have has often been polluted and abused by multi-national corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In 2009, in Plachimada, India, a Coca-Cola bottling plant turned an entire city’s drinking water toxic. Within six months, the water became ill-fit to drink or bathe in, and the crops that the citizens of Plachimada grew with the water became rancid and died.

Coca-Cola also offered the farmers of Plachimada a “free bio-fertilizer” for their coconut plantations which, when analyzed by a BBC study, showed toxic levels of cadmium and lead. Only after a year of protest and public outcry did the India government impose laws, which shut down the Coca-Cola bottling plant for good.


In Bolivia, in 1999, multinational water corporations like Thames Water, Vivendi, and Suez have privatized municipal water supplies through the request of the World Bank and the governments of this developing nation. Companies like Suez work to set up water treatment plants in cities across Bolivia; however, the water supply often goes unchecked and becomes contaminated and unfit to drink.

In a country like Bolivia where one in ten children die before the age of five due to drinking water, it seemed like a step in the right direction for its citizens: “The objective of privatization was equipping the cities of La Paz and El Alto with potable water and sewage. But during that process we have evidence that in El Alto alone 208,000 people have been excluded from potable water service,” claims Julian Perez of the Federation of Neighbours of El Alto, in an interview during the documentary FLOW.

These for-profit companies’ main goal is to sell cities own drinking water back to its citizens, often for more money than they can afford. Fortunately, public interest groups rallied around the nation of Bolivia and the poor citizens within and drove out Suez in 2007.


The water industry has become the third-largest industry in the world, falling just behind electricity and oil. With water prices continuing to rise and the threat of disease from tap water becoming more apparent, the Western world has turned to bottled water for drinking. Although most harmful pathogens enter your system through bathing and showering, we often tend to disregard that fact. Last year Americans purchased 31 billion litres of bottled water, costing $10.8 billion.

World wide bottled water sales shot upwards to $100 billion. This water is often unregulated, and the FDA claims that only one employee works to maintain the safety of the bottled water industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently does not regulate 51 known water contaminants, and studies show bottled water can contain chemicals, including arsenic, fertilizer, and painkillers from the top ten bottled water companies in the world.

The real trick comes with the fact that these bottled water companies, including Nestle, have been accused of selling you tap water. Brands like Aquafina and Dasani are not only hundreds of times more expensive then tap water, they are allegedly tap water with added chemicals and bottled into carcinogen-leeching plastics, often sold at prices higher than gasoline. The UN has estimated that the total cost yearly to provide safe and clean drinking water for the entire world to be approximately $10 billion; the yearly revenue provided to the bottled water industry is three times that number.

With Nestle owning over 70 per cent of American bottled water companies, including Perrier and San Pellegrino, their thirst (no pun intended) for fresh water has become detrimental to ecosystems. An average bottling plant pumps around 450 gallons of water per minute, which, unsurprisingly, can cause the very streams they pump from to go dry in a matter of years. And as if that wasn’t enough, Nestle allegedly pays no money for the water, because they have the right as all citizens of America do to use tap water as they will.


So where do we turn when the rivers have run dry, we’ve polluted our lakes, and tapped our aquifers to depletion? The National Research Council has reported that in Southern California, and in the surrounding area, steps have been taken in an attempt to purify what was once considered wastewater. Las Vegas, a city with a population of almost 600,000, empties all of its wastewater into Lake Mead, which in turn provides a large amount of tap water for the rest of the South Western United States.

Lake Mead was formed from excess water retained by the creation of the Hoover Dam in 1936 and holds approximately 35.2 km of water. The water pumps into areas like Southern California and Arizona and is drawn from taps of homes, containing on average about five per cent wastewater in it, which can contain a lot of nasty microbes. Scientists claim, however, that the five per cent of contaminants, which include pharmaceuticals and hormones, are less dangerous than many natural reservoirs and pose no serious health risks.

Even if this is the case, Lake Mead’s water levels continue to rise and fall in dramatic levels of excess and drought. It has been predicated that within 30 years, with current levels of growth, Lake Mead could drop its water levels by up to 50 per cent. This would leave a large part of the southern United States in a state of drought and potential famine.

The National Research Council seeks to prevent this by sending the wastewater back into the pipes of Americans: "Wastewater is a droughtproof supply. People are always generating wastewater," Jorg Drewes of the NRC said in an interview with the LA Times. "That can be a very viable option, the committee felt, compared to imported water and other options."


Fortunately for Vancouver residents, the water that comes out of our taps is rated within the cleanest and safest water in the world. It seems foolish to throw your money into a vending machine for a bottle of Dasani water that was likely bottled in Toronto or Quebec.

“In Canada, there have been 29 separate recalls of 49 bottled water products since January 2000 due to bacterial or chemical contaminants including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Bacillus cereus, and Arsenic [CFIA],” claims the Polaris Institute in a report entitled, “The Urgent Need for Health and Environmental Regulation in the Bottled Water Industry.”

The Polaris Institute goes on to point out that the water that comes from your tap is strictly monitored and regulated by provincial governments and is tested every five hours, whereas bottled water has little to no regulation whatsoever and is tested once every two and a half years, on average.

Such health concerns have led many universities to not only raise awareness of these risks, but to occasionally ban the sale of bottled water all together, including forward-thinking Canadian schools like Vanier College in Montreal.

“We do have water refill stations and we’re hoping to start a ‘Pro Tap Water’ Campaign,” says Heidi Anderson, the Environmental Issues Coordinator for the Capilano Students’ Union. “We are also looking into getting the water tested to show students that the water is essentially the same [as], if not better than, bottled water.” There is a petition with the Canadian Federation of Students for an anti-bottled water campaign, which can be signed in the CSU.

Unfortunately, Capilano continues to maintain its vending machine contract with Coca Cola which was renewed just last year – making it difficult to ban bottled water on campus anytime in the near future.


As far as cities go our rain-soaked city of Vancouver fares pretty well with water consumption, which comes as no surprise, since we are surrounded by it. However, as part of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, which the Vision Vancouver government brought forward in Jul. 5, 2011, Vancouverites were encouraged to reduce their consumption of fresh water through metered usage.

All new family homes and duplexes require water usage meters installed to monitor a household’s water consumption, a proposition proposed by city councillor Andrea Reimer. Currently, all homes in Vancouver pay the same flat rate for water utility; however, this seems unfair to Reimer.

“Right now we all pay the same amount [in a flat utility fee], no matter how much water you use in your house,” she said in an interview with the Georgia Straight. “The less people you have, generally speaking – though not universally the less water you are going to use, right?”

The proposed meters would cost roughly $500 per household, which has caused a bit of a stir among other city councillors. Opponents include the Non-Partisan Association, which views the water usage meters as some sort of extra tax being imposed by the city under the guise of creating a greener city.

Although many developed cities use per-usage water metering as an effective way to reduce consumption, George Affleck of the NPA sees it differently: “I understand the conservation argument. The conservation argument is obvious, and that’s why they say we should pass this motion. Well, actually I understand preservation, but is the motion and these water meters actually going to achieve the results you’re wanting to have? I think there are better ways to spend that money,” he told the Straight.


Besides drinking wastewater from a reusable bottle, taxing consumers, and building dams, there are other ways to protect our freshwater supplies. Many water activists in India are pushing forward Water Health UV Filtration systems, which use an electronic UV lamp to sterilize their water. These units are self-sustaining and require only one or two employees to monitor the UV lamps and water flowing underneath them.

The cost of running a Water Health UV Filtration System, which provides each person with ten litres of clean drinking water per day, is just $2USD per person annually, a truly meager amount. Also, the money saved from medication and travel costs imposed by diseases incurred
from contaminated water is very high. Currently about 300,000 people have benefited from this new technology in India, which is a drop in the bucket when viewed against the people who need it (India has a population of over a billion people), but still a step in the right direction.

Water is also greatly wasted and exploited through mining practices across North America. Fracking is a new type of mining method used to extract natural gas, which uses millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to extract natural gas from shale beds across the United States. Not only is this method wasteful, it is also extremely toxic and dangerous to any near by water supply. Similar to Canada’s own tar sand “tailings”, the wastewater left behind from such operations is very toxic, not to mention wasteful. Between two and four barrels of water are used for every single barrel of oil removed from Canada’s tar sands.

The harsh reality of this crisis is that many areas of North America will soon either experience water shortages, something they rarely experience, or that the water they do consume will become highly treated or less safe.

However, there is hope for the world of water. As with most obstacles, humanity can once again turn to science: vast water-use reduction and treatment, along with more water efficient appliances and homes, will likely stall the inevitable point of no return. We must act quickly though, securing our supply of clean, sustainable drinking water, and maintaining it before the taps run dry

//Colin Spensley, writer
//Graphics by Britta Bachus

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