Monday, 17 October 2011
Drinking Water in Canada - safe but not safe enough
Canada has one of the highest global per capita supplies of fresh water, and not surprisingly one of the highest per capita consumption rates of water. Of course, none of us actually drinks 350 litres of water a day or use that much in our own households. Most water goes into food and power production or industrial processes.
We are also blessed with reasonably good quality fresh water. Or perhaps it is the curse. The perception of good quality likely resulted in a somewhat indifference to protecting water quality and a minimalistic approach to treatment for drinking water purposes.
Provincial variation in expectations, regulation, and even basic philosophy have resulted in a patchwork of drinking water supplies and highly variable safety from one community to the next, and in the most perverse situations variable risk within the same community. Quebec with one of the older infrastructures, has a strong program and dynamic debate about ensuring water safety. Once again an icon to be emulated in many respects. Yet, 100,000 people were placed on a boil water advisory 2 days ago in Montreal’s West Island, although rectified in less than 48 hours.
Along came Walkerton and shortly after North Battleford. No surprise given the vulnerability of the drinking water supplies. Perhaps forgotten are the 30 odd outbreaks of waterborne disease that were documented in BC in the 90’s. It was however the tragedy of Walkerton that refocused attention on Canada’s vulnerable drinking water resource.
Provinces have responded in a multitude of ways. Most of Honourable O’Connor’s recommendations from the Walkerton inquiry have been acted upon, although there is debate on the effectiveness of the implementation. Clear onus was put onto the public health community as the guardians of the public's wellbeing. And the obligations entrusted to public health professionals to protect the population from unseen threats was emphatically stated.
Significant progress on reducing risk associated with drinking water in Ontario has been made. Likewise in Saskatchewan where only a handful of large municipal systems were unable to meet treatment requirements by a fall 2010 deadline. Alberta was well ahead of the curve, but private developed has resulted in lower the bar. Still some of the approaches to mass drinking water production and distribution could be a lesson for other provinces.
Other provinces have been less diligent. Nova Scotia allows for a mixed process for providing drinking water with differing expectations. To learn how not to do drinking water, look to BC. First Nations lands have often been subjected to inferior drinking water quality, and while the current federal government can only be minimally faulted for its record in remediation and substantive investment, the decades of neglect spanning numerous governments should not be forgotten. It was the evacuation of the Kashechawan First Nation in 2005 due to unsafe drinking water that finally catalyzed in the current levels of investment.
Water is a public good and should at all times be treated as a utility. We are fortunate in Canada to have reasonably good water sources, but they are not pristine and require proper treatment and safe distribution. There may be good rationale for having private management, but drinking water should not be treated as a commodity as it is in some countries. It is an essential element for survival with no options other than unsafe alternatives. There is no reason for any person in the country to suffer from a drinking waterborne illness of any nature.
Yet, some 1800 water systems in Canada are on some form of advisory, 1/3rd of these in BC, with Saskatachewan, Newfoundland also with large numbers for their smaller populations. The ability to even track and count is not easy, but perhaps the Water Chronicles effort http://www.water.ca/map-graphic.asp is at least a start. Transparency and provincial government accountability are required in this utility more than any other – yet in some provinces, such accountability is lacking.
Drink up. And no, you should not need to purchase bottled water, fortunately and despite the numerous underserviced communities, drinking water quality delivered to the vast majority of Canadians who live in large urban settings is safe and tasty.