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What the drought warnings across Canada are telling us

As more than 500 forest fires burn across B.C., the drought conditions across the province are also worsening.

On Monday, CBC reported, “Nearly one-quarter of B.C.’s regions are now at the highest drought rating, with no significant rain in the forecast.”

B.C. is not alone in experiencing droughts and other extreme weather events, all of which are worsening with climate change.

Many regions across provinces and territories, which are on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples, have issued drought warnings. There were 120 forest fires burning in Northern Ontario earlier this month, which have now decreased to 26 fires.

These extreme weather patterns seriously threaten clean drinking water sources, watersheds as well as our food security.

Despite drought, forest fires and extreme weather events, most governments continue to promote an economic system that puts unlimited growth above water, our climate and the vital needs of people and the planet.

Bill C-69, a long-awaited bill that made sweeping changes to Canada’s water, environmental and energy legislation, fails to adequately protect waterways and further cements market-based, corporate-friendly policies into Canada’s water, environment and energy laws.

Governments must take immediate steps to curb climate change including developing a national action plan on water that upholds the human right to water and phases out extractivist projects that abuse water and exacerbate climate change.

Climate change, water and extractivism

Extractivist projects like Nestlé’s and other bottled water takings, fracking, tar sands development, mining and other resource projects threaten clean water sources, further fuel climate crises and violate Indigenous rights.

Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta describes extractivism as “activities which remove large quantities of natural resources that are not processed (or processed only to a limited degree), especially for export.” This includes minerals, oil, forestry, fisheries, farming and other projects.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission (BCOGC) has issued a directive for oil and gas companies to suspend water withdrawals used for fracking in the Peace River and Liard watersheds last week. Yet the BCOGC increased the amount of water permitted under water licences for fracking from 17,825,759 m3 in 2016 to 22,409,242 m3 in 2017.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline puts 1,355 waterways in Alberta and British Columbia at risk. The new pipeline would run near the Coldwater Indian Band’s drinking water source.

The B.C. government is also continuing to allow Nestlé and other bottled water corporations to pump water from local watersheds. Agriculture Canada reported that 83 per cent of all of Canada’s bottled water exports come from B.C.

In Ontario, the Grand River Conservation recently gave a report to Puslinch councillors that current and future water use and drought conditions pose a significant risks to two wells serving Guelph. In 2016, the city of Guelph reported that Nestlé’s water takings could conflict with city’s future water needs. Nestlé is pumping up to 4.7 million litres every day on two expired permits. Doug Ford’s government has yet to post Nestlé’s applications for public comment and obtain free, prior and informed consent of Six Nations of the Grand River.

The Council of Canadians is calling for a phase out of bottled water withdrawals to protect water for people and ecosystems.

Across the Prairies, governments continue to promote oil and gas development despite the thirsty industry’s impacts on local watersheds. According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, tar sands development used 182 million cubic metres of freshwater, mostly drawn from the Athabasca River, to produce 467 million barrels of oil equivalent in 2016.

Resource development in Saskatchewan such as potash and uranium mining and oil and gas drilling are putting water sources as risk.

The Mackenzie River Basin watershed which encompasses much of the Northwest Territories, is at increasing risk of being impacted by development projects which originate for the most part in B.C. and Alberta.

Logging and offshore drilling in the Atlantic further fuel climate crises. (More info on how logging impacts climate change and water availability here.) David Suzuki has noted that Muskrat Falls dam as well as the Site C dam fail on combating climate change. He writes, “Decades of research show greenhouse gas emissions from large hydroelectric projects can be substantial.”

Agriculture is also a water intensive industry. In her latest book, Boiling Point, Maude Barlow warns that factory farms and corporate farms are on the rise putting water sources at greater risk. She points to the National Farmers Union who have confirmed that farmland owned and worked by local people – farm families, producer co-ops and communities – best protect land and water.

Water and food security in our changing climates

Drought warnings across Canada year after year are telling us that we can no longer afford to take water for granted.

Forest fires pose a threat to clean water because ash, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs (a group of chemical compounds that show up after any sort of fire that involves organic matter) and any flame retardant used can pollute local water sources.

Heavy rains can overwhelm older sewage systems. Raw sewage was found floating in Lake Ontario after the heavy rain earlier this month. Flooding and sewage overflow in New Brunswick this spring posed a health risk to residents.

The negative impact on farmers and food supplies are a common and worrisome thread in many news reports on drought conditions. Low water levels are also putting fish and fish habitat at risk.

CBC reported that Alberta’s constant state of drought could be the province’s “new normal” and are impacting farmers and ranchers.

Droughts are also affecting crops in Saskatchewan, livestock in Manitoba, growing seasons in Ontario, hay prices and availability in Quebec, potato farmers in PEI and dairy farmers in the New Brunswick.

In 2016, Nova Scotia was hit with both record-setting drought and devastating floods. Families wells were running dry and farmers were needing to find solutions to future droughts.

There are few things more important than clean water. Governments need to take leadership on water protection including developing a national action plan on water that phases out extractivist projects, achieves a 100 per cent clean energy economy by 2050, and implements the human right to water and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But for now, grassroots groups and communities like the ones opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline or promoting Blue Communities are leading the way to protect water as a human right. It’s in these communities that we can draw hope and inspiration for a blue future.