We are surrounded by water from the time we awaken to when we fall asleep. We make our morning coffee with water; we clean ourselves with water; even the food we eat can only be grown because of water.
We take access to safe water for granted in a world where about 2.2 billion people lack such access that allows for sanitation and hygiene and prevents and contains the spread of diseases like cholera, schistosomiasis and COVID-19, among others.
As of February 2022, 29 First Nations communities still live with long-term drinking water advisories. These advisories can last anywhere from a few months to decades and range from ‘boil water’ advisories to ‘do not consume’ and ‘do not use’ advisories.
The United Nations observes World Water Day to raise awareness on the importance of clean water. Held annually on 22 March, this day highlights the importance of freshwater, advocates the sustainable management of water resources and highlights a relevant theme. This year’s theme is “Groundwater, Making the Invisible Visible”.
As the term implies, ‘groundwater’ is found deep in the ground and is collected over time from snow and rain. Any water that is not absorbed by vegetation or evaporated into the air seeps into the ground to augment aquifers—geological formations of sand, gravel and rock that hold massive amounts of water.
In mountains and snow caps, 69 per cent of freshwater is unextractable. A mere one per cent of the world’s freshwater is accessible from rivers and lakes. This makes groundwater a vital natural resource as it represents about a third of the world’s freshwater, which is often extracted using pumps and wells.
Most freshwater is not used for drinking or washing but rather for agricultural purposes. Though estimates vary, about 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater is extracted for irrigation—mainly as groundwater. When the weather is hot and dry, groundwater can be extracted and replenished with rain or snow. It also supplies water for drinking, food production, and sanitation and hygiene, and supports the functioning of ecosystems like wetlands and rivers.
Groundwater is routinely contaminated by human activities. There are two major contamination types: point sources and nonpoint sources. Point sources include leaking contaminants from pipelines, landfills, industrial waste disposal sites, gasoline storage tanks and septic tanks. Nonpoint sources include the permeation of fertilizers, pesticides, livestock waste, motor oil and road salt. Groundwater contamination is a major concern because once a contaminant is introduced into the water, it may slowly move to another location, widening its geographic spread. In addition, contaminated aquifers can be rendered unusable for decades; groundwater moves slowly, so contaminants may not become detectable until it is too late.
Groundwater provides water for about a third of Canadians and up to 80 per cent of rural Canadians, many of whom are First Nations persons. Many of the aquifers supplying this water are threatened by climate change, contamination and over-extraction, which disproportionately affects First Nations communities.
The origins of water contamination in and near First Nations communities can be traced back to the Indian Act of 1876, a colonial approach to removing Indigenous People from their land to promote European settlements and agricultural developments. The federal government outlined reservations without adequate infrastructure planning of water distribution systems, water treatment facilities and community sewage and landfill systems. This lack of logistical planning resulted in poor access to safe and clean water for First Nations communities, instead promoting groundwater contamination via landfills and sewage leaks. These centuries-old colonial policies, chronic underfunding and ageing facilities have resulted in about 30 per cent of First Nations community water systems being classified today as high risk. Unsurprisingly, the number of water-borne infections reported in First Nations communities is 26 times higher than the national average.
The federal government has been planning and implementing improvements to infrastructure, properly staffing water systems, committing to ending long-term drinking water advisories and supporting First Nations’ control of water delivery. In 2015, the government promised to end all drinking water advisories by 2021. Around 128 long-term ‘boil water’ advisories have ended, but while the 2021 deadline has come and gone, 36 long-term drinking water advisories affecting 29 communities remain.
As per Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, we need to start protecting our local and global waters. SDG 6 is closely linked with other SDGs. For example, clean water and sanitation help decrease the incidence of water-borne diseases, which improves health (SDG 3) and increases school participation (SDG 4), which, in turn, help lift individuals and communities out of poverty (SDG 1). Additionally, we can promote responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), mitigate the effects of climate change (SDG 13), build sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) and work towards creating resilient infrastructure (SDG 9) to protect our planet and its water resources.
As with many of the SDGs, making a difference begins at home. You can help protect water resources by:
Participating in World Water Day activities to raise awareness of issues and inspire action.
Properly disposing of harmful materials like motor oil, pesticides, paint, household cleaners and other hazardous wastes.
Avoiding the use of pesticides, fertilizers and road salt that leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater.
Conserving water by taking shorter showers and turning the faucet off when you wash your hands and brush your teeth.
Volunteering to clean up beaches, streams and wetlands in your area.
Holding local and federal governments accountable for their promises to address water-related challenges for the most affected communities.
World Water Day takes place once a year, but our relationship with water is lifelong. Help protect it now for yourself and for future generations.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha