Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2012, 4, 807-811 Published Online October 2012 (
Water Myths: The Illusion of Canada’s Endless
Water Supply
Henry Gordon-Smith
The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, USA
Received August 3, 2012; revised September 5, 2012; accepted October 4, 2012
This paper explores the common misconception that Canada has an infinite supply of freshwater. The true amount of
water availability in Canada is explored, and the location of the majority of Canada’s water supply is described. As a
consequence of a more precise assessment of Canada’s actual hydrologic situation the paper seeks to dash the danger-
ous myth of Canada’s water inexhaustibility, which is straining the country’s precious resource increasingly. Finally,
this paper discusses the major threats to Canada’s water supply, which are from both external factors as well as its in-
ternal sociopolitical weakn ess. A solution to these problems is considered.
Keywords: Canadian Wat er Supply; Hydr o l ogy ; Water Security; Canadian Water Polic i es; Ca nadian Gover nmental
Fragmentation; US-Canadian Political Relations; Water Wars
1. Introduction
Canada is perceived by environmentalists and laymen
alike to be an exceedingly resource-rich country. This is
arguably true, in comparison to the majority of other
countries. However, an in-depth scrutiny of Canada’s
resources and the factors that affect them presents a view
that most would find surprising; this is especially the
case with Canada’s water assets, which are perceived by
many as being so copious that they are often regarded as
infinite. The myth of Canada’s inexhaustible water capi-
tal ought to be debunked, for not only does Canada not
possess as much water as unilaterally thought—both do-
mestically and abroad—but some dangerously over-
looked factors make its accessibility troublesome. That
most Canadians believe they have such an excess of wa-
ter is too onerous a belief, because it inevitably leads
them to consume it at an alarming and unsustainable rate.
It is essential that Canadian s be aware of the finite nature
of their water resources. This paper seeks to outline the
condition of Canada’s true water circumstances, its major
issues, and recommendations for improvement. Canada
indeed does have significant water resources, but a lack
of awareness as well as Canada’s government’s perpetual
political fragmentation place the country’s water security
in peril.
It has been argued that in less than 10 years, half the
world’s population will be living in water scarcity [1].
Many countries are already experiencing severe, annual
water shortages, because their hydrological resources
cannot sustain the demands placed upon it by their demo-
gr aphy. Even the United States has experienced an alarm-
ing increase of instances of water scarcity and droughts
[2]. Effective water management is a major challenge for
most nations and thus a highly necessary investment
—and one that Canada must take more seriously.
Water assets can be separated into three distinct cate-
gories: stock, supply, and availability. Stock refers to the
fresh water that is stored in lakes; it is a non-renewable
resource that can only be used once before needing re-
filling by an external source. Water stock is not a sus-
tainable source of fresh water and is therefore not to be
considered a true reflection of a state’s water capital.
Canada’s examples of this water category are the Great
Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s fresh water stock
[3]. In fact, Canada has the largest amount of stock stored
in lakes of any sin gle coun try though “many naively con -
sider the Great Lakes to be nearly inexhaustible sources
of freshwater” [3]. Many actually conceive of these large
bodies of water as the trophies of Canada’s privileged
water situation. Misconceptions of this sort are responsi-
ble for the risky creation of Canada’s water myth. The
truth, in fact, is that the stock in the great lakes is equal to
2 years of runoff from the entire world’s rivers [4,5]: that
would take 100 - 300 years to refill them.
Supply is fresh water, which is renewed annually as
part of the hydrological cycle. This type of water comes
fro m pre cipita tion, snowfall, and aquifer discharges [4,5];
it moves through rivers and underground sources and is
renewable; but it is not unlimited, and must be used ap-
opyright © 2012 SciRes. JWARP
propriately, otherwise, the balance in its function within
the water system could be impaired. Water shortages
often occur when supply is consumed unsustainably.
Canada holds about 6.5% of the world’s supply [4,5].
Canada’s supply is generally held as being an overabun-
dant surplus, because of Canada’s relatively small popu-
lation. However, when one considers availability and
supply, the picture beco mes increasing ly less optimistic.
Availability refers to the amount of supply that is
available to be harnessed by the human population; it
depends on water flows, population distribution—the
location of supply. For example, even though the US and
Canada have very similar amounts of supply, 60% of
Canada’s water flows northward [4,5], thus reducing its
availability dramatically. This is of particular concern,
since 85% of the Canadian population lives within 250
km of the US border [6], and, most of the fresh water
flowing northward is still inaccessible today, which
leaves only the remaining 40% of supply for the majority
of Canadians. Because of their inability to access water,
the actual percentage of supply for Canadians is reduced
from an abundant 6.5% to 2.6% of the global supply [6].
Despite this drastic reduction in availability, Canada’s
position as a water resource-holder is still hardy com-
pared to other nations; but as this paper shall outline,
much of this water is mismanaged, diverted, and ex-
2. How Canada Is Utilizing Its Available
Now that we have a more accurate picture of the water
capital in Canada, we shall examine how Canada deploys
its hydrological resources. Data from 2006 shows that
Canadians withdrew approximately 5700 million cubic
meters of water and consumed 1300 of it [7]. The rest
was “returned back to the system internally, displaced
externally to another watershed or polluted and returned”.
Municipalities use in total an average of 638 liters per
day per capita [6]. According to these figures, “Cana-
dians consume more water per capita than do people of
any other country, oth er than the United States” [8 ]. This
leads to significant water shortages, especially in the
southern part of the country, which has limited water re-
sources. Canadians’ over consumption of water resulted,
for example, that in 1999 a quarter of municipalities
reported having water distribution problems [8]. This
datum is shocking in itself if we realize that 10% - 50%
of potable water in municipalities is lost to leaks in the
distribution system [9]. The consumption on the muni-
cipal level is only part of the problem as the chart below
As Figure 1 illustrates, thermal power generation ab-
sorbs 63% of Canada’s hydraulic resources. Although
thi s percentage is very high, we need not condemn it her e,
because it is generally sustainable and better than most
energy alternatives. The large quantity of water used for
hydroelectric purposes does however lead to consider
that if such large quantities of water are being used for
energy, water use in Canada as a whole ought to be
managed with greater care: the use of water for energy
obviously further increases its value to Canada.
Manufacturing is a necessary part of a modern nation’s
economy; in the case of Canada, industry consumes
much of Canada’s fresh water supply. The Great Lakes
and the St. Lawrence River are the world’s single largest
source of freshwater; they supply drinking water to 45
million people [3]. Furthermore, the watershed of this
area is home to most of Canada’s manufacturing and a
quarter of its agriculture [3]. The fresh water in the
Great-Lake area is under enormous pressure from both
Canada and the US: massive urban growth and industry,
as a result of rapidly rising immigration, increases both
the consumption of fresh water in the area as well as the
pollution of the remaining water. The oil industry in Al-
berta also poses immense water spending by Canada, as
each year over 200 billion liters of water are used to
pump oil from wells; but unfortunately, much of that
water comes from aquifers that do not have adequate
replenishment rates because of low precipitation [9]. An-
other significant source of consumption is the pulp and
paper industry, which also—in turn—releases haz-
ardous chemicals into the water system. Thus, in the
name of economic progress Canada is seriously worsen-
ing its water security and condition.
In the West, significant growth is occurring in urban
areas and the surrounding agricultural land is being
overused. These areas have minimal precipitation and
depend highly on the Rocky Mountains for flowing fresh
water [3]. To ad d to the prob lem, once again, ru no ff fro m
farms often pollutes much of the limited ground water
and rivers that do exist. In the prairies of Alberta a large
network of agriculture is in place and significant amounts
of water are needed to irrigate this semi-arid area. It has
already been demonstrated that existing water supplies in
Alberta are “at, or near, full allocation and competing
demands and large irrigated agricultural water extractions
have now been recognized as reaching a critical limit”
[10]. Similar problems are occurring in the Okanagan
Basin region of British Columbia where 70% of the wa-
ter licensed for consumptive use is allocated [11].
Figure 1. Principal water uses in Canada, 2000. Source: en-
vironment Canada.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JWARP
2.1. Where Canada Sends Its Water
pply is being
eap hydropower, Cana-
the US towards Canada’s
ts water
2.2. The Influence of Climate Change on
Climg the way that the
asin Network consists
2.3. What Is Canada Doing to Improve Its Water
Altha is still far from recognizing the illusion
We have seen that Canada’s finite water su
spent heedlessly of its limitation. Domestically, Canada
is already exerting inordinate pressure on its resources,
but what is more disconcerting is that beyond this,
Canada still continues to spend its water elsewhere,
especially by giving it to the United States. Many Cana-
dian water energy and diversion systems are built solely
to cater to their southern neighbor. An example of this is
a new hydroelectric development in James Bay, which
threatens aboriginal land while supplying energy to US
clients [3]. The precedence for such behavior in relation
to water was set in 1964 when th e Columbia River treaty
“requ ired Canada to build three dams on the upper Colum-
bia to control flooding and maximize power production
in the US part of the watershed” [3]. US-Canada water
relations repeatedly lead to actions that hurt Canada eco-
nomically and environmentally, and, eventually cripple
long-term needs of Canadians.
“To satisfy US hunger for ch
ans have already made more inter-basin transfers of
water than any other nation. It seems somewhat hypocri-
tical that the movement of water considered unacceptable
between nations because of its great ecological liabilities
(i.e. the Souris or Great Lakes) should be rendered accep-
table simply by the fact that it occurs entirely within
Canadian boundaries, especially when Americans are the
primary beneficiaries [3].”
Aggressive coveting by
ater is not unusual. In 2001 the Great Lakes Annex as
part of the International Joint Commission (IJC) was a
political attack by the seven US states that border the
Great Lakes. Seemingly, this revision claimed to protect
the Great Lakes, but in fact, it provided new ways for
these states to divert water (under a weak set of restric-
tions) [3]. Although the Annex 2001 eventually was
rescinded thanks to fierce criticism in the press, it was
clearly a “Trojan horse” [3] intended on diverting water
from the Great Lakes to the United States. More recently,
Bush even demanded that Canada begin to pipe its water
to the Southwest states making it clear that the US
expects Canada to keep spending its water resources on
the only county that consumes more than it itself does.
Canada cannot safely continue to spend the limited water
it has on the US out of fear, for this water use is utterly
unsustainable and benefits Canada only in th e short-term.
Furthermore, less water for Canada leads to a grave re-
source security condition for the entire continent: the
long-term costs for everyone are too severe.
Not only does Canada export, divert, and plan i
order to benefit its southern neighbor, but it also
exports more “virtual water” to it than an y other country.
“Virtual water” is defined as the water that is stored
within products or is part of their production that is then
sent elsewhere. The immense amounts of cattle and tim-
ber, which are shipped to the US, for example, contain
significant amounts of water that is thus dissipated [3].
Arguably the largest loss of “virtual water” is due to the
fact that 60% of the energy from Alberta’s oil sands is
exported to the US [3]. Although Canada reaps signifi-
cant economic rewards from this trade relationship, one
cannot consider Canada’s water budget without including
the “virtual water” that is exported through these pro-
Canada’s Water Condition
ate change is seriously affectin
hydrological cycle functions. Although the long-term
consequences of these changes are still unkn own fully, it
is clear that Canada’s water system shall face serious
challenges because of increased variability. (For a view
of Canada’s policies to mitigate these consequences, see
“The Political Landscape” section of this paper). Changes
have already been witnessed in precipitation rates and
glacial melting, which both affect th e timing and strength
of stream flows. Increased droughts are also increasing
the demands of agricultural areas of Canada in order to
achieve reasonable production levels. Consider the fol-
lowing study published in 2001:
“The Reference Hydrometric B
249 hydrometric stations, including 206 continuous
stream-flow, 37 seasonal stream-flow, and 6 continuous
lake level stations [3]. Nationally, the broad pattern is
toward decreasing daily stream-flow over the entire
range of percentiles. This is consisten t with the observed
negative trends in annual mean stream-flow [3]. There is
also good evidence to suggest that river ice break-up is
occurring earlier in most regions of Canada [12].”
Canada is not immune from the effects of c
ange and water is just one of the many areas where it
will face serious challenges. If the trends of decreased
stream-flow continue, Canada’s already menaced water
supply will suffer further.
ough Canad
of its water over-abundance, many efforts are being made
to manage its water, cope with current problems, and
prepare for future crises. Water governance in Canada is
fragmented to say the least: provinces hold the main re-
sponsibility over water allocation and the federal gov-
ernment overlaps through the control of fisheries, trans-
boundary flows, and aboriginal issues [13]. In an exten-
sive study prepared for the Walter and Duncan Gordon
Foundation in 2007, seven areas were evaluated to offer
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JWARP
a clear representation of the current state of water secu-
rity action in Canada. The seven areas studied were: 1)
Ecosystem protection; 2) Economic production; 3) Eq-
uity and participatio n; 4) Integration; 5) Water conserva-
tion; 6) Climate variability and change; and 7) Trans-
boundary sensitivity. As is clear in the assessment, Can-
ada has made some progress on water security matters
but is still “missing a strong national understanding of
options and approaches” [14].
3. The Political Landscape
disjointed federalism
been cited within this an
a is facing a severe water security crisis in the
4. Conclusions
uivocally Canada does not have as
kker makes five recommendations for impr-
and the pro-
a national water strategy based on sustain-
learned platform so that stakeholders
ld investigate making water
re of great value and if implemented,
er resources
Canada’s political structure—its
—is often cited as a main source of the multifarious pro-
blems the country faces. Once again, this time through
water security, it becomes clear that the inarticulate
separation of power b etween the federal govern ment and
the provinces is a major roadblock against real progress.
As mentioned earlier, the provinces have jurisdiction
over their resources while Ottawa can only get involved
if it somehow relates to foreign relations, fisheries, abo-
riginal issues and trans-boundary flows. All of these ar-
eas have played a significant role in Canada’s water se-
curity history, so it may be said that the federal govern-
ment has some power in the matter. The fragmented poli-
tics between the provinces and Ottawa, however, have
been a source of policy clumsiness, which prevented
Canada from formulating a strong and implementable
water strategy: provinces are on their own, competing
with internal and external corporate interests and the ag-
gressive resource-consuming southern state. Canada’s
frayed political system will continue to be a hindrance to
the progress for water security as well as other complex
national interest concerns.
US-Canada relations haved vinces.
merous other papers as a main source of concern for
Canada’s water security; Canada’s weakness in dealing
with the water issue has led to further aggression towards
the precious resource by US corporations and political
actors. Perhaps th e Canadian leadership is still convinced
of the “water myth” and is not realizing its inaccuracy.
But the US will always aggressively pursue whatever
resources it needs—whether it be through economic, po-
litical, or military means—thus leaving Ottawa vacillat-
ing over its conduct. That the US has a track record of
military aggression in order to obtain resource security
ought not to be forgotten: it would be unwise to assume
that water will be an exception. As Canada’s economy
depends on the US it has understandably chosen repeat-
edly to submit to their requests; but at some point US
demands will be too much for Canada. That is the reason
why finding solutions to this relationship is increasingly
ture: it is consuming unsustainably, and in add ition, US
interests are exploiting it. This is occurring in conjunct-
tion to the myriad of challenges that climate change pose,
as well as the increasing problem of population growth.
In 2005 North American leaders backed by corporate
interests signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership
(SPP) [5]. The SPP was an ambitious program that inte-
grated the economies, resources, and security of the
United States, Canada, and Mexico. Partly as a response
to terrorism, it was also devised against market volatility
and resource depletion. The SPP was proscribed in 2009
because of severe criticism by the Canadian press and the
general public. Nevertheless, the interest to streamline
North American natural resources is a threat that is still
with us.
Even though uneq
much water as is perceived, unfortunately, the general
conception is still that Canada has inexhaustible re-
sources in the North that will someday be accessible. The
illusion of Canada’s water surplus is also a matter of na-
tional security, as Canada cannot afford to be stripped of
its natural resources d ue to a false understanding of their
plenty-fullness or availability. As it is only a matter of
time before Canadian water resources will be part of one
North American resource pool, it is even more urgent
that Canada develops effective national water manage-
ment plans.
Karren Ba
ing Canadian attitude toward water policies [4]. These
are valuable directives for water management programs:
Revise Canada’s federal water policy.
Improve cooperation between Ottawa
able solutions.
Create a lessons
can share best practices.
Federal government shou
a human right.
All her points a
uld solve the looming dangers of water supply in Can-
ada. Although not mentioned explicitly, many of her poi-
nts are also designed to improve the Canadian political
fragmentation, which, as was evinced in our overview, is
the marrow of Canada’s challenge to improve its water
security. The effect on external relations (another major
challenge) would also arguably be improved, as Can-
ada’s stance could be firmer against US aggression on
water issues. At the moment, the powerful political and
corporate actors in the US are able to engage the prov-
inces to play against each other; this gives them an ad-
vantage that shoul d not be u n derest i mated.
After this brief study of the state of the wat
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Copyright © 2012 SciRes. JWARP
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clearly unable to defend itself politically, economically,
or militarily. But Canada, as a relatively young nation
with significant resources per capita and the power to
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acting decisively to manage its resources independently.
Clearly, what is needed is a judicious, self-interested
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level, shall educate citizens and dismantle the dangerous
myth of Canada’s water abundance.
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