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Explosive population growth threatens global, Canadian water resources

Water touches every aspect of our being but we don't give it enough consideration

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Explosive urbanization - not unlike what has transpired in and around Vancouver and the Sea to Sky corridor in the past few decades - and its effects on local water supply dominated discussions at the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy in Buenos Aires, Argentina last month.

Several Canadians were among 52 water experts invited from 28 countries to participate in the seventh biennial Rosenberg forum to examine the state of water management in the Western Hemisphere from Nov. 15 through 17.

"It is interesting to note that the theme that ultimately completely dominated the forum was the problem of rapid urbanization," said Bob Sandford, Canadian chair of the United Nations Water for Life initiative.

The Canadian delegation also included Michael Miltenberger, Northwest Territories' deputy premier and minister of environment, Lorne Taylor, chair of the Alberta Water Research Institute, its science director, Sasha Zehnder, and Dr. Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in water resource and climate change at the University of Saskatchewan. A presentation by Rob deLoë, University of Waterloo research chair in water policy and governance, compared Canada's Mackenzie River - North America's second largest river system which is shared by three provinces, including B.C., and two territories - to South America's La Plata, which flows through Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil.

"Explosive urbanization is having unexpected effects on water supply, water quality and sanitation not just within affected municipalities but widely throughout the regions that surround them," Sandford said. "Currently, global human population growth is the highest in places where there is the least water. Think of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Latin America. Think, too, of the U.S. sunbelt. But think also of Alberta and southern B.C."

Canada, Sandford states, is a mirror of what is happening globally. In the 20th century, the global human population grew fourfold, and urban populations increased by 13 times. During the same period, Canada's population multiplied by six times.

In addition to explosive population growth, two other trends emerged at the forefront of forum discussions: growing competition between cities and agriculture for water, and the growing realization of how much water nature needs, not just to perpetuate the hydrological cycle, but to sustain planetary life-support system functions.

"There was complete consensus at the forum that water policy must respond to all these issues if we are to avoid a crisis of scarcity in many places in North, Central and South America," Sandford said. "The population of British Columbia is growing rapidly. Throughout the province there are greater pressures on increasingly stressed water supplies and rising municipal and industrial demands - all occurring at a time when we are uncertain about how changes in our climate will affect the security of our water supply. One of the fastest growing regions in the province - the Okanagan - is in what already is and will increasingly be an area of water scarcity."

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