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March 22, 2007: coping with water scarcity World Water Day

by Frances Rooney | March 1, 2007

I don’t want to be the one to sell water for profit. I want to be rich in spirit.

— Josephine Mandamawin, of the Mother Earth Water Walkers

Spring 2000. Walkerton, Ontario. Seven dead. Hundreds seriously ill.

The outbreak of E. coli in this town east of Lake Huron was not the first time in Canada that drinking water had killed. For decades, people of little power or influence – often Canada’s Aboriginal people – have lived with disease, birth defects and death from mercury, arsenic and PCBs, as well as loss of arable land and fish or wildlife food sources.

Walkerton made it a national issue.

Not that much has changed. In 2003, a report from the Ontario Clean Water Agency called another town a “Walkerton-in-waiting.” That town? Keshechewan, which was evacuated because of its water problems three years after the report was released.

According to the federal government, as of March 9, 2007, there were 88 First Nations communities across Canada under a Drinking Water Advisory.

Water has been a growing concern across Canada:

  • Last fall, the country had its single largest boiled water advisory, when roughly 2-million people in the Greater Vancouver Regional District had unsafe tap water as a result of a storm.
  • The Alberta Government has leased over 35,000 km square of boreal forest – a prime source of water collection and purification – to deep oil sands development. Overall, the oil sands are consuming more and more clean water each year, which affects river flows, causes accelerated wetland decline, and results in expanding tailing ponds.
  • Factory farming consumes a lot of water, and produces the kinds of pollutants that led to the Walkerton crisis.
  • Groundwater – the source of over 50% of Saskatchewan’s rural water supply, and a large proportion of rural water elsewhere – needs natural purification in the ground. As this water is used for mining, oil and manufacturing, the threat to the supply grows more rapidly.
  • Irrigation – which some small farmers use, and which is a major factor in agribusiness – contributes to increased salt entering the soil as water sitting on the surface of the earth evaporates, leaving its salt content behind. Eventually, nothing will be able to grow on these lands.
  • In cities, salt on roads is leaking into both soil and water.
  • Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories is sacred to the Deh Cho people, and was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1978. Seven mining, oil and gas companies that operate upstream now threaten it.

So, where do we begin? The Council of Canadians, Kairos and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have organized more than 70 events – including film festivals, readings of Varda Burstyn’s novel, Water, Inc., and marches – for World Water Day.

This year’s theme is “Coping with Water Scarcity.” According to the United Nations, “The theme highlights the significance of cooperation and importance of an integrated approach to water resource management at both international and local levels. Equity and rights, cultural and ethical issues are essential to be addressed when dealing with limited water resources. Imbalances between availability and demand, the degradation of groundwater and surface water quality, intersectoral competition, interregional and international disputes, all center around the question of how to cope with scarce water resources.”

Many political conflicts over resources are hidden or suppressed. Those who control power prefer to make water wars as ethnic and religious conflicts.

— Vandana Shiva, physicist, ecofeminist, environmental activist and author

When the United Nations established World Water Day in 1992, it focused on those countries that have little or no clean running water or sanitation – generally in Africa and Asia. As well, women are central to World Water Day.

In Africa, women and girls:

  • do 90 percent of the gathering of water and wood for food preparation
  • do 90 percent of food preparation
  • often walk more than 9 kilometres, taking five hours out of each day, to get water and wood
  • spend four hours a day preparing food

Girls cannot go to school because they are needed to help keep families alive. Because of HIV/AIDS, young girls are all too often heads of families, or help their grandmothers feed and raise families. For these women and girls, access to clean water close to home can mean dramatically reduced workloads – and the opportunity to use hours every day for study or other kinds of work that could transform their lives.

More than one billion people around the world lack clean, safe drinking water.

While finding and preparing food and water rarely proves this all-consuming for North Americans, another part of the World Water Day focus on women applies to this continent as much as it does anywhere else.

Around the globe, women are almost invisible in decision making about water. UNESCO states: “It is essential that women become more involved as advisers, planners, scientists, engineers in all areas” concerning water use and allocation. And in an unprecedented manner, the UN agency goes on to emphasize that not only must women participate in decisions about water use, but that those decisions must be in accord with ways women determine and define.

Often, women’s traditional culture has impressive ecological wisdom. As a result, UNESCO is encouraging projects that explore and articulate that culture. It is the women of Aboriginal and other cultures that have not lost their traditional wisdom who will lead.

Beginning in 2003, a group of Anishinabe-que and their supporters began walking around the Great Lakes to raise awareness about “the importance of water as a sacred resource that is essential for life.” This year, the Mother Earth Water Walk begins with a potluck feast on Saturday, April 28.

According to Irene Peters, lead Grandmother on the Lake Erie walk, “It’s important to bring awareness to people of the state of our water and that we have to do something about it. It is important for each community to think of what they can do to protect the water. Each community will come up with their own ideas of how they can keep the water clean.”

She adds, “It is also a personal responsibility.”

More than 2.6-billion people lack adequate sanitation services (that’s almost 80 times the population of Canada).


  • CITIZENShift, Water - screenings, panel tour and more, National Film Board
  • Council of Canadians, World Water Day Cross-Canada Events
  • KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, World Water Day Events

get involved
  • Talk about water with your neighbours, community leaders, friends, family, local representatives, provincial or territorial politicians, and federal Members of Parliament.
  • Participate in a nearby water project.
  • Volunteer with an environmental group.
  • Promote water issues on discussion boards, blogs and by commenting about online news stories.
  • Find out what’s happening to water around the world.
other sources
  • Walkers raise awareness about water, by JOHANNA KRISTOLAITIS, North Bay Nugget | September 16, 2006
  • Fearless Women Environmentalists, by FRANCES ROONEY, Second Story Press, Toronto | fall 2007

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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