It’s 1 a.m. and I am awakened by the sound of a running toilet. Laying there listening to the water trickle endlessly, I remember that the baby’s diapers need to go in for another wash cycle. Then I try to remember if I paid the unusually large water bill from filling the pool this summer. And there’s something else nagging at the back of my mind — oh, yeah, we’re supposed to write about water conservation.

Canada is a fairly wet country. Lakes, reservoirs, and streams cover about seven per cent of our total land surface area. Most Canadians live near a body of water — in fact, most live near the shores of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Standing on the shore of Lake Ontario it is hard to imagine water as a finite resource. When we turn on the tap, water comes out. What’s the problem?

At home, the greatest challenge is providing access to clean and safe drinking water. The needs of people for drinking water compete most strongly with the needs of agriculture for irrigation, and to a lesser extent, the needs of industry. In fact, around the world, 70 per cent of water extracted for all uses goes to agriculture. When the water is returned through drainage to streams or seepage to aquifers, it is often polluted. The pool of freshwater that can safely be consumed is shrinking while the population’s need for water is growing.

So, what do we do? In wealthy countries, we have two options: Treat water, removing these pollutants, or abandon our polluted freshwater sources and turn to the sea. Water treatment is an energy-intensive enterprise, desalination even more so. So, treating and conserving our freshwater it is. Energy conservation has reached our collective consciousness, but we fail to make the connection between water conservation and energy conservation. We will only appreciate the importance of conserving water when we understand where our water comes from and what the economic and environmental costs are.

Beyond our borders, access to safe drinking water cannot be taken for granted. Lack of infrastructure and high energy costs may discourage the treatment of drinking water. The most recent United Nations World Water Report finds that “physical and eco-nomic water scarcity and limited or reduced access to water are major challenges facing society and are key factors limiting economic development in many countries.” The report also finds that we are not on track to meet the U.N.’s goal of improved sanitation for most of the world’s population. These two factors set the stage for a global water crisis.

Economic development and epidemic prevention in the world’s poorest countries, then, requires improved sanitation coupled with conservation practices. Where do we fit in? Obviously, we can provide aid such as capital for infrastructure projects. We can also play a role as consumers. We need to educate ourselves and avoid imported food products that are water resource intensive — that includes bottled water. And I need to fix my toilet.

– Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates. Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University;

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