Werner's Blog — Opinion, Analysis, Commentary
Canada's improvident water consumption

With drought conditions persisting in parts of Canada, much attention is focused on water. Are we water wise or are we water wasters? Sadly, Canada's overall performance leaves much to be desired when we compare our national performance against peer countres in the OECD. Canadian premiers have talked much about a new "Canadian Energy Strategy"—perhaps the time has come to also talk abou a new "Canadian Water Strategy".

The World Bank maintains a data set that tracks water withdrawals by country and year (ER.H2O.FWTL.K3). How does Canada stack up against other countries? The latest data reported are for 2013. Annual freshwater withdrawals include agricultural, industrial, and residential use. It includes water obtained from desalination plants. In the table below I have converted the raw data series into per-capita use per day. The average Canadian consumes nearly 3,300 litres per day directly and indirectly. That is almost exactly three times more than the average German consumes.

Freshwater Withdrawals (Litres per Day per Person) 0 1000 2000 3000 4000 5000 United States 4141 Estonia 3733 Canada 3288 New Zealand 2931 Australia 2675 Greece 2353 Portugal 2217 Italy 2065 Japan 1937 Spain 1908 Mexico 1798 Netherlands 1730 Hungary 1546 Belgium 1523 Korea 1390 France 1314 Slovenia 1253 Austria 1182 Germany 1097 Finland 823 Sweden 747 Israel 664 Ireland 471 Slovak Rep. 348 Luxembourg 304

The Conference Board of Canada has flagged Canada's poor water performance as well. A January 2013 report card gives Canada a "C". Only one other major OECD country consumes more: the United States. Not far behind Canada are New Zealand and Australia. Most European Union countries use much less water per capita, and Northern European countries tend to be more frugal than Southern European countries.

‘Good stewardship of our water resources requires the use of appropriate pricing mechanisms.’

Why is Canada's water use so high? To begin with, it is important to distinguish between gross and net water use. Gross water use can be dissaggregated into water consumed (net use) and water returned. Residential water use is actually dropping on a per-capita basis. Agriculture is by far the largest user of water in Canada, as only a sixth of water used for agricultural purposes returns to rivers and lakes. Irrigation does not only grow crops but also leads to large amounts of evaporation. Industrial use is dominated by withdrawals for thermo-electric power generation plants. Most of it is used for cooling, and while some water evaporates, most cooling water is returned to lakes and rivers. Even though the gross use of water by industry is much larger than for agriculture, the net use by agriculture is utlimately larger.

Even after allowing for Canada's large use of water for cooling purposes, that leaves a tremendously high level of water use for agriculture. While Canada has enormous water resources, this can mask local and seasonal scarcity. As the drought conditions in Western Canada have demonstrated, this scarcity can become problematic. We need to balance residential, agricultural, and industrial use of water, and this requries comprehensive as well as fair and equitable volumetric pricing of water. Canada is still far away from this goal. We need to learn to become more frugal users of our water. Good stewardship of our water resources requires the use of appropriate pricing mechanisms.


Posted on Tuesday, August 4, 2015 at 10:00 — #Water | #Environment
© 2024  Prof. Werner Antweiler, University of British Columbia.
[Sauder School of Business] [The University of British Columbia]