National Water Policy

Water is vital to people’s health and livelihoods, but in Canada, there is no national strategy to address urgent water issues and no federal leadership to conserve and protect our water. The federal water policy is more than 25 years-old and badly outdated. Highly intensive industrial uses, agribusiness and pollution are having massive impacts on Canada’s water. It is time for the federal government to implement a comprehensive National Water Policy that recognizes water as part of the commons – a vital resource that is available to all – a public trust and a human right.

With the country facing significant and unpredictable headwinds going into another federal election year, the 2019 Alternative Federal Budget (AFB) shows that Canada can boost competitiveness and encourage innovation by investing in people, not by giving corporations more tax cuts.

Canada is in urgent need of a National Water Policy that recognizes and protects our water sources. Specifically this policy should:

Establish national enforceable drinking water standards.

Canada does not have legally enforceable drinking water standards. In April 2008, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported there were 1,766 boil-water advisories currently in place in Canadian municipalities, not including First Nations communities. Several communities have endured drinking water advisories for years, and 90 Canadians die from water-borne disease every year.

There are many examples of water tragedies in Canada. In 2000, seven people died in the community of Walkerton, Ontario when their drinking water was contaminated with E. coli bacteria. In 2001, more than 7,000 people were made sick during a three-month period by parasite- infected water in Battleford, Saskatchewan. In 2005, people in Kasechewan, a Cree community in Ontario, were forced to evacuate their homes because of water contamination.

Indigenous communities in Canada have been affected disproportionately by the water crisis. Despite repeated government pledges to ensure First Nations have access to clean drinking water, their water is still often contaminated. Read more.

Canada needs a National Water Policy

Recognize water as a human right.

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly confirmed the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. This internationally binding resolution must be recognized at every level of government. This will ensure that all people living in Canada, without discrimination, are legally entitled to safe, clean drinking water and water for sanitation in sufficient quantities, and that inequalities in access are addressed immediately. The recognition of water as a human right gives communities lacking access to clean drinking water a legal tool to exercise this right. It also provides legal recourse if a water source is damaged by industrial activities.

The Canadian government has consistently opposed the recognition of water as a human right at key UN meetings.

Declare surface and ground water a public trust.

The declaration of surface and ground water as a public trust will require the government to protect water for the public’s reasonable use. Under a public trust doctrine private water use would be subservient to the public interest. Permission to extract groundwater under the public trust doctrine, for example, might be granted based on the ability to show public benefit for any proposed extraction. It may also lead to the creation of a hierarchy of use requiring that water use be allocated for ecosystems and basic human needs first, and not corporate needs such as large-scale industrial projects or by bottled water companies.

Create a national public water infrastructure fund.

Decades of cuts in infrastructure funding, coupled with the downloading of several programs and services to municipal governments, have resulted in a “municipal infrastructure deficit,” conservatively estimated at $123 billion by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Communities across the country are in desperate need of money to pay for water pipes and filtration systems, which is now the responsibility of municipal governments. Some governments have started looking to private investors to rebuild infrastructure through public-private partnerships (P3s). Water is a public health and safety concern and is best managed, regulated and financed by public systems that are accountable to the community. When for-profit interests control drinking water, quality decreases and costs increase. Money is needed to ensure municipal infrastructure is rebuilt to provide publicly-owned and operated water infrastructure, not the failed P3 model currently being promoted and funded by the government.

Provide a strategy to address water pollution.

Although regulating water pollution falls largely under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government is responsible for protecting fish-bearing waters through the Fisheries Act and controlling toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

A strategy is needed to address the following water pollution concerns including:

  • Standards for industry and agribusiness. Every level of government must commit to creating and enforcing strict laws against industrial dumping, the use of non-essential pesticides on public and private lands, and the discharge of toxins into waterways.
  • A slowdown of tar sands production. The tar sands projects release four billion litres of contaminated water into Alberta’s groundwater and natural ecosystems every year. Toxins connected to tar sands production have been found as far downstream as the Athabasca delta, one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.
  • National enforceable standards for sewage treatment. Canada has no national standards for municipal sewage treatment and wastewater effluent quality. As a result, 200 billion litres of raw sewage are flushed into our waterways every year.

Ban bulk water exports.

Canada and the United States share interconnected water systems. The need for such a ban on bulk water exports is pressing, given the pressure to send water to serve drought-prone areas in the United States. In the last two years we have seen detailed proposals from right-wing think tanks in both the United States and Canada to export water from Manitoba and Quebec. These projects are tremendously costly, require vast amounts of energy, and pose great threats to watersheds. Bulk water exports and diversions would leave Canada’s water vulnerable to environmental depletion and to international trade challenges that could permanently open the floodgates to parched U.S. states.

Exclude water from NAFTA and all future trade agreements.

Under NAFTA, water is defined as an investment and a service. This protects the right of foreign investors to consume vast and unsustainable amounts of water to extract oil from the tar sands, to bottle ancient glacier water and groundwater, and to dump their waste into lakes. If a corporation is granted permission to export water anywhere in Canada, it becomes a tradeable good under NAFTA, and other provinces will have to grant similar access to corporations seeking water export rights. Only a clear exclusion of water from NAFTA and other trade agreements will avert this threat.