Canada’s role in averting a global water crisis

July 25, 2012

Bob Sandford is the EPCOR Chair in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade in Canada and a member of the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy. He is also an advisor to RBC’s Blue Water Project. The opinions expressed are his own.

Because of its small population, large area, extensive agricultural regions and relatively high per capita availability of water, Canada is considered to be among the world’s most important food-producing nations.

It is one of the top ten producers of barley, wheat, soybeans and corn; and among the top five hog and beef producers in the world.

Canada’s agriculture sector also contributes significantly to Canada’s prosperity. Primary agriculture alone contributes more than C$20 billion a year to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

It has been estimated that one in seven Canadians works in an agriculturally-linked job and that the total economic activity associated with agriculture in Canada may be as much as C$98 billion a year.

For many Canadians, agriculture is not just a source of livelihood but a way of life.

As global food demand is projected to more than double by 2050, substantial potential opportunities for this sector have been identified.

Significant risks associated with agricultural water use and uncertainties related to climate change must be addressed, however, if Canada is to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Under the pressures of increasing population and climate change, stress on Canada’s water resources is expected to grow.

While some expansion of agricultural productivity may be possible in some areas as the climate warms, water stress is becoming a serious concern especially on the interior Great Plains region of Canada where agriculture is the main economic activity.


There are fundamentally two different kinds of water scarcity. The first is absolute scarcity which occurs when the volume of water available is simply insufficient to meet all needs.

The second is economic scarcity which occurs when infrastructure to move water does not exist or when governments and other agencies do not have the means or competence to fully utilize existing water supplies.

Most studies cite population growth as the principal driver of increases in the global demand for water.

Research shows that the world population is likely to grow by 30 percent between 2000 and 2025 and by as much as 50 percent between 2000 and 2050.

At a minimum, the fact that the global population is expected to grow to projections of 9.5 billion by 2050 invites questions as to whether there will be sufficient water to support population increases of this magnitude.

The concern becomes more urgent when it is recognized that nearly all of this growth will occur in developing countries.

A study of 92 developing countries shows that — as higher incomes drive improvements in diets around the world — as much as an additional 5,200 cubic kilometres may be needed annually for agriculture alone by 2050.

There is some urgency in responding to this important global trend. It is now recognized that in order to provide water and other benefits to people, nature needs water, too.

Unfortunately, however, a full 40 percent of humanity is already competing directly with nature for water.

As a result, we are beginning to see some frightening convergences. If nature is to have the adequate amount of water it needs in order to provide important basic ecological services, then less water will be available for agriculture, which means that there will not be enough food for people.

If, on the other hand, priority for water allocation is given to agriculture in order to sustain growing populations, then there will not be enough water to allow nature to sustain its fundamental, long-term, planetary, life-supporting functions and self-regulation.


Water quality and quantity concerns are expected to become international transboundary political issues as the global agricultural sector tries to achieve the nearly impossible goal of doubling food production while at the same time reducing total water use by 10 percent by mid-century.

It is anticipated that by 2050, 6 billion people may be living in water-stressed regions. The next wars may not be conflicts declared between sovereign states, but undeclared civil wars between cities and surrounding agricultural regions over the timing and extent of allocations.

While the idea of bulk water exports to thirsty regions of the United States raises nationalistic ire among Canadians, effective treaties and close relations suggest that disputes over waters that compose nearly 40 percent of the boundary between the two countries can continue to be resolved amicably.


Some economists believe that letting the marketplace take care of water scarcity and allocation issues will allow for greater efficiency and facilitate higher-value use.

Others strongly believe that the commodification of such an important life-giving substance like water through often self-serving markets will make water scarcity issues worse and make equitable allocation more difficult. Water markets are also seen to put the cart before the horse.

While trades and short-term water license exchanges can be helpful, other priorities need to be addressed before markets will deliver benefits that go beyond mere profit for investors and speculators.

Before markets are created it is important to demonstrate that Aboriginal water rights have not been ignored; that water pricing and conservation measures that will free more water to be generally available for minimum human use and other purposes now and in the future have been satisfactorily designed; and that actions that need to be taken to measurably reduce eutrophication and other water quality impacts of agricultural practices are working.

It is also important to develop and codify exactly the practices that will be put in place to assure adequate environmental flows; and to illustrate the government structure that will provide appropriate, effective and timely oversight of the above and all market transactions before consideration should be given to the creation of water exchanges.


Whatever economics instruments are employed, they must bring about stricter water conservation.

The wastefulness of some developed countries with respect to water and related energy use puts into relief the challenge we face in supplying water to the one billion people on Earth who do not have a safe and reliable daily supply.

It also speaks to the challenge of serving the additional two billion people on this planet who do not have daily access to adequate sanitation. Industry examples suggest that for every dollar saved in water use in the developed world, as much as four dollars more is saved on chemical, electricity and energy costs.

If such savings could somehow be directed in part towards water infrastructure development where it is lacking, the improvements in human well-being would go a long way in reducing the potential for conflict over matters of water supply and quality in the future.

This blog is part of AlertNet’s “The Battle for Water” multimedia report. Find out more here.

Picture credit: A farmer cuts his oat crop north of Cochrane, Alberta. REUTERS/Patrick Price/file

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