In a single generation, Canada has evolved from a from a nation that took great pride in its citizens' ability to drink from almost any river, stream or lake in the country, to one seriously concerned about water quality and availability now and in the future.
And as a result of the country's water resources having become strained in response to increased population and the range of agricultural, industrial and recreational activities multiplied, the perceived abundance of Canada's freshwater resources is being questioned.
"Growth and prosperity is leading many Canadians to recognize the limits of what they know and can predict about how much water will be available in the future," said Bob Sandford, Canadian chair of the United Nations Water for Life Initiative, in an address to the Canadian Security Traders Association, which took place at Whistler's Westin Resort and Spa Aug. 12.
"As often happens with wealthy people, we have, over time, lost touch with the source and true nature of our wealth. Where once we carried in our minds a detailed mental map of our country's great rivers, we now live in a linear world defined by the straight-line logic of the train, the car and the plane."
It is crucial, Sandford insists, that Canada embrace a new water ethic if it hopes to achieve any meaningful degree of sustainability.
"Ours is the greatest of all hydraulic civilizations," Sandford said. "By the year 2000, we had constructed some 45,000 large dams that in combination with the hundreds of thousands of smaller structures quadrupled water storage for human purposes in only 40 years. Depending upon the time of the year, three to six times the water that exists at any given time in all the world's rivers is now stored behind giant dams."
No one, however, has examined or is able to predict the cumulative global-scale effect of uncoordinated dam building, irrigation diversions and the related impacts of deforestation on the timing and extent of water availability or on water quality.
"Add to these the impacts of groundwater overdraft globally and belatedly we realize our own potential to alter the world's water cycle," Sandford said.
Human activity has affected the planet's natural hydrological cycle by altering the composition of the atmosphere and how much land cover exists to capture, store, purify and release rain that falls. Humankind has affected rain and snowfall patterns, and ultimately, the amount of water flowing in rivers and even those rivers' ability to reach the ocean.
A new Canadian water ethic, Sandford insists, is essential as a warming global climate threatens the reliability of national and regional water supplies the world over, including the freshwater stored in western Canada's diminishing glaciers.