Sustainability: Water Edition

All the buzz right now about sustainability is great, but if you’re like me, it can be challenging to understand what sustainability really means and how to achieve it. Therefore, in this article I try to break down this common buzzword into bite-size chunks, focusing on water sustainability in Canada, and in our everyday lives. 


According to the Cambridge English dictionary, the word sustainability means: the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore (the practice is) able to continue for a long time. Within a subsection of this definition specific to natural resources and the environment, sustainability is defined as: the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment. This definition is more applicable to practices that we hear people talking about, such as bringing their own food containers to avoid using single-use plastic, and choosing public transit over personal transportation to reduce carbon emissions. Overall, I think sustainability for the individual is being conscious of the steps we take today, and working to uphold a future we wish to have for the Earth tomorrow. This is especially important when thinking about the sustainability of water, as it is an essential resource for all life.


Natural resources are materials or substances that are found in nature, and can be used for economic gain. Water is the world’s most abundant natural resource, with other natural resources including soil, oil, natural gas and wind. Even though water is the largest natural resource on Earth, with water covering 70% of the earth’s surface, only 3% of water available is freshwater. Of that 3%, only 1/3 is readily available for use, the other ⅔ is locked away in glaciers and icecaps. Freshwater sources that are available to us can be surface waters (such as rivers, lakes, springs), atmospheric water and groundwater. This freshwater is what we use in everyday activities such as cleaning, bathing, watering our plants and cooking. There has been the same amount of freshwater on earth since the dinosaurs, but as a result of the human population expanding, the world water demand has increased. With increased demand and the same resource supply, the competition for clean water to sustain all aspects of life intensifies. A question you’re probably wondering: Why don’t we just desalinate the salty water if 97% of the water on earth is salty? And though that’s very innovative thinking, very high energy and advanced technology is required  to remove salt from water, and therefore this method is relatively inaccessible as a freshwater replenishment strategy. 


Canada is lucky to have around 20% of the world’s freshwater, but of which only 7% is renewable. Renewable resources are replenished naturally over time, where nonrenewable resources, like coal and oil have limited amounts available on Earth. Even with an abundance of freshwater in our country, there is still inequality in water access with some communities having limited or no access to safe drinking water. This is especially true for remote communities and Indigenous peoples in Canada, who are disproportionately affected by the water inequality crisis as a result of poor resource planning and/or infrastructure. Another question you may have, is why do Indigenous peoples have poor resource planning, or water infrastructure? Following colonization, Indigenous peoples were taken from their traditional lands and placed on federal land reserves where all the infrastructure, including water, is the responsibility of the federal government. On these reserves there is no legislation – as there is in the provinces – governing drinking water standards and accessibility (2005 Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development report).


Now that we understand what sustainability means, and know some freshwater facts about Canada, I share some actionable steps you and I can take everyday to ensure water sustainability for our collective future. Many of the recommendations I list below are based on that in Canada, many of us have unlimited, uncontrolled access to clean water. As a result of this, it is important as global citizens to consider how best we should manage this privilege, and how we should encourage others to manage it as well. 


Some small things you can start doing today:

  • Skip the bottled water. The water quality testing for tap water from your municipality is often tested at a higher quality threshold than bottled water, therefore there is no reason to be seeking out bottled water as a ‘cleaner’ water. The plastic bottles each actually uses one litre of water to make, and also create unnecessary waste that often contribute to the microplastics found in Canadian water bodies today. (On that note: skip plastics when you can and try to bring reusable containers to limit the plastic waste you make in general. Check out Plastic Free July to commit.)
  • Consider what is necessary + change daily practices. Do you have automatic lawn watering, let the tap run while you brush your teeth, have super long showers, have a leaky faucet you haven’t got around to fixing, or do you wash laundry with only two items? Think about the unnecessary ways you and your community use water, and change your ways today. Our growing population is putting an unnecessary demand on the limited water resources of the world, and many of us are so lucky to have unlimited access to it so our responsibility to be sure we’re not wasting a precious resource.
  • Some thoughts for homeowners. 
    • Consider investing in high efficiency machines that use water sustainably, not only will you reduce greenhouse emissions, but you will also save money on your utility bills! The City of Edmonton even has a bylaw for the promotion of the use of high efficiency fixtures.
    • Think about using a rain barrel to catch rainwater, for watering your plants or lawn rather than using freshwater from the tap or hose. 
    • Consider low-impact development (LID) for your garden, a great example from EPCOR is a rain garden.  If LID is not for you, consider eco-landscaping, which is a design technique for your yard to use water efficiently, involving selective planting to reduce water use.
  • Think about the river (or other waterbody). Think about what you flush down the toilet, and consider if it may have harmful effects. Check out the City of Edmonton’s “ways to keep the river healthy”, such as how to wash your car and dispose of chemicals while being mindful of the river.
  • Support water sustainability initiatives. Another key step as a global citizen is engaging water sustainability in your communities, and seeking out like-minded individuals can be very motivating. Some Edmonton-specific examples include the Master Composter Recycler program, Waste Free Edmonton, Northern Climate and Stewardship and Sustainability Society and Climate Justice Edmonton.  


I hope this article drew you to consider how you use water every day, to learn some new water sustainability practices, and to think about how you can include them in everyday life. I encourage you to share this article with friends and family to continue the conversation on water sustainability in your community, and to ensure the future entails water that is swimmable, fishable and drinkable. We should not take the clean water accessibility we have for granted, and should work for change on a global level, so all can have access to clean safe water. 



Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

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