Category Archives: water

If Yonge Street Is Sinking…

Is there any question that our cities are in desperate need of funding? Certainly not, as a water-main at the north-end of our riding explained to us this morning:

Traffic was restricted on Yonge St. south of St Clair Ave. this morning after the pavement sagged near a broken water main.

Toronto police closed the road around 8 a.m. at Summerhill Ave., near the Summerhill subway station, to investigate the sagging asphalt. Toronto Water had been investigating the leak since yesterday afternoon.

Police said water from the broken pipe left an open hole in the ground.

Over the past few years, under the parties of the past, governments of all stripes have cut funding to municipalities while simultaneously downloading responsibilities. This morning’s incident is just one example of the sorry state of our city’s infrastructure, and the severe lack of long-term thinking displayed by our current political leadership. As a result, we’re now paying more to deal with incidents like this than we would have paid to invest in cities in the first place. (To get a sense of how much more, try and wrap your head around this report’s finding that one billion dollars’ worth of drinking water disappears into the ground every year in Ontario alone due to “rotting, leaky municipal water pipes.”) Meanwhile, our federal government sits on giant surpluses while telling Toronto to “drop dead,” in the words of a recent Star headline.

It’s time for new ideas. It’s time for a party that takes long-term planning seriously. It’s time to invest in our communities and build the great city we know Toronto can be.

Red Alert

The United Nations has released another report, Global Environmental Outlook 4 [pdf], on the state of our planet’s ability to support life, yet it has received minimal coverage. Our news media should explain why. Read the below summary of the report (courtesy George Monbiot), and try and imagine what else could be of more importance.

Crop production has improved over the past 20 years (from 1.8 tonnes per hectare in the 1980s to 2.5 tonnes today), but it has not kept up with population. “World cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s, and has since slowly decreased.” There will be roughly 9 billion people by 2050: feeding them and meeting the millennium development goal on hunger (halving the proportion of hungry people) would require a doubling of world food production. Unless we cut waste, overeating, biofuels and the consumption of meat, total demand for cereal crops could rise to three times the current level.

There are two limiting factors. One, mentioned only in passing in the report, is phosphate: it is not clear where future reserves might lie. The more immediate problem is water. “Meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will require doubling of water use by crops by 2050.” Where will it come from? ‘Water scarcity is already acute in many regions, and farming already takes the lion’s share of water withdrawn from streams and groundwater.” One-tenth of the world’s major rivers no longer reach the sea all round the year.

Buried on page 148, I found this statement. “If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.” Wastage and deforestation are partly to blame, but the biggest cause of the coming droughts is climate change. Rainfall will decline most in the places in greatest need of water. So how, unless we engineer a sudden decline in carbon emissions, is the world to be fed? How, in many countries, will we prevent the social collapse that failure will cause?

The stone drops into the pond and a second later it is smooth again. You will turn the page and carry on with your life. Last week we learnt that climate change could eliminate half the world’s species; that 25 primate species are already slipping into extinction; that biological repositories of carbon are beginning to release it, decades ahead of schedule. But everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: “if it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?”

When a crowd of people watches something bad happen, the likelihood that someone will intervene to prevent it decreases as the size of the crowd increases. And here we are, the whole human race, watching our planet’s ability to sustain our lives slip away, waiting for someone to act.

Politicians, bloggers, voters: no more games please. This is issue number one. As the most unlikely of newspapers (The Toronto Sun) declared last week, we’re at red alert. The time to hesitate is long past through, and half-measures are not going to cut it.

New Low

It’s no secret that I don’t have a lot of love for Stephen Harper, but yesterday he sunk to such a new low that even I was surprised.

For the past few days, opposition parties have been asking the government questions about the handling of Afgan detainees because, well, there’s mounting evidence that we may be implicated in their torture, and because when they asked defence minister Gordon O’Connor about it he — what’s the term again? — “mislead” the House. So, you can see why they’d be concerned.

Harper responded by saying that, just because they asked those questions, those MPs obviously cared more about Taliban prisoners than Canadian soldiers. He subsequently refused to apologize. In other words, not only has “you’re either with us or against us” migrated to Canada, somehow concern for human rights is now anti-Canadian.

Speaking of which, I will remind you today, on World Water Day, that under this government Canada still refuses to declare water a human right. (So, what is it then? A privilege?)

I used to think comparisons of Stephen Harper to George Bush were exaggerated and unfair. Not any more.

Against Bottled Water

The United Church of Canada‘s General Council is meeting in Thunder Bay this week. That meeting happens once every three years, when democratically elected commissioners vote on various policy and directive resolutions affecting the church. It is the highest governing body of the church.

I’ve been at the last three General Councils, so I’m a little sad to not be at this one. (I’m going to the Green Party of Canada’s National Convention next weekend instead.) Three years ago, at the General Council meeting in Wolfville Nova Scotia, I met Alexa Mcdonough. We only spoke briefly, but were both able to agree that if parliament worked more like a General Council meeting it would be much more productive. For example, everyone sits at randomized round tables (instead of in the automatically adversarial arrangement of our parliament) and decisions are made by consensus (instead of by….um….how does our parliament make decisions again?).

And for those of you who would say that can’t work in a large group, there are around 600 people at a General Council meeting, with over 400 voting commissioners. Parliament has 308 MPs.

The past two General Councils have generated media attention for the United Church’s support of same sex marriage. I was proud to be a part of that. This year’s meeting is getting attention for a vote scheduled for tomorrow, where the GC will vote on a resolution opposing the commodification and privatization of water, including bottled water. I’m proud again (this time in absentia).

There are a number of reasons. For one, I do believe that water should be public, and that access to clean water is a human right (even though the government of Canada disagrees). That on its own may not be enough to avoid bottled water, but there’s more. The bottling process drains aquifers and reduces the flow of streams and lakes, which causes stress on ecosystems. And of course, the bottle itself is an unnecessary piece of waste.

What do we get for those sacrifices? Not much. Bottled water isn’t even regulated under Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act, is regulated less strictly than tap water, and is often just treated tap water anyway (as is the case with Coke’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina, which I’ve read is mostly tap water from Detroit — yum).

Check out Now magazine for more details about bottled water and water politics in general. We can’t take this stuff for granted. We’re even more addicted to it than oil, and we’ve seen what those wars are like.

ps. What will those wars have to do with us? Well, we’ve got the world’s largest fresh water reserves, and we’re right in-between the US and China. Might be hard to stay out of this one.