By Jordan MacPhee (guest opinion)
Every year on March 17, many individuals in the western world spend their time and money to pay homage to alcohol, in all its many forms. However, only five days later, long after the head-splitting hangovers are long forgotten, I feel as though we don’t pay a similar degree of respect to the most important, yet the most taken for granted, liquid in the world: water.
March 22 marks World Water Day: one day a year where we can collectively recognize and appreciate the most fundamental source of life that is the basis for many of the world’s daily activities (including drinking beer). But in countries like Canada, where immediate access to abundant and (relatively) clean and safe drinking water is an assumed fact of daily life, it’s easy to assume this situation will automatically continue into the future. This is simply not the case.
From overconsumption and dwindling resources, to contamination caused by agriculture and industrial practices, there is less drinkable water on Earth every year, for a global population that is growing by the hundreds of thousands every day. Now, you might think (and are probably justified in assuming), “Of course this is a problem, but surely a country as advanced as Canada, a liberal democracy in the 21st century, would be one step ahead of this problem, right?” But you would be wrong.
Even though Canada is home to one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, a quarter of the world’s remaining wetlands, and the world’s longest coastline, Canada is the only G8 country without legally enforceable drinking-water-quality standards at the national level. At the provincial level, Canada relies on a patchwork of water policies, which jeopardizes people’s health and compromises clean water for future generations. More than 80 per cent of the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality relating to chemical contaminants provide less protection for public health than other industrialized nations. On any given day, more than 1,000 boil-water advisories are in effect across the country, many in Indigenous communities.
Despite this unsettling scenario that we find ourselves in, there are actions we can take. More than 110 countries — over half of Earth’s nations — already recognize their citizens’ right to live in a healthy environment. However, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms is silent on the issue. A federal environmental bill of rights would help compensate for this omission by providing clear guidelines for government, industry and citizens to manage resources, economic development, and the health and well-being of communities in ways that are transparent, predictable, and sustainable.
More than 20,000 Canadians die prematurely every year because of exposure to environmental hazards, and the total cost of pollution in Canada is estimated to be more than $100 billion a year. Simply put, we can’t afford not to take action. More than 120 communities, representing more than 12 million Canadians, have passed environmental rights declarations at the local level. It’s time for the federal government to take action.
I hope other Canadians will urge the federal government to introduce an environmental bill of rights that will recognize, protect and fulfil our human right to clean water. As citizens, we should be guaranteed access to environmental information, public participation in decision-making and effective legal remedies when human and environmental health are threatened or damaged.
Water is a fundamental human right. Canada joined the international consensus and recognized the right to water at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012.
We must live up to that commitment here at home.
Once that happens, then hopefully our gratitude for clean water will fall on more days than our thankfulness for green beer.
Jordan MacPhee is a student of political science and environmental studies at UPEI, a farmer, and a board member of the Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island (ECO-PEI)