Resource-rich Canadians have developed international reputations for soaking their lush lawns and washing their cars with potable water – in the rain.
In much more arid regions of the world, people without access to water have no choice but to defecate in the streets.
This is the divide painted Wednesday by the president of a major European water research institute, a man who says Canada’s wasteful ways have set a bad example for the increasingly parched planet.
Riccardo Petrella of the European Research Institute on Water Policy said Canada has long neglected its vast networks of rivers and countless lakes.
Canada boasts one fifth of the world’s freshwater supply – including the water frozen in glaciers and ice caps – and seven per cent of the Earth’s renewable supply.
“You are rich (in) polluted water,” Petrella said after addressing a session on water at Montreal’s Millennium Summit on international development.
“I wouldn’t consider Canada amongst the good examples to follow in the world stage.”
Petrella, founder of the International Committee for a World Water Contract, also fears Canada will cave to pressure from the United States and export its freshwater as a commodity.
In the last 20 years, Canada has become increasingly driven by business and market opportunities at the expense of initiatives like sustainable development, he said.
In his speech, Petrella warned that turning water into an economic asset will cut off the people who need it most – the poor.
More than a billion people around the world still don’t have safe drinking water and 2.6 billion don’t even have access to a toilet.
“They defecate in the streets,” he said.
“Effectively, access to water, even in Europe, is not accessible to a growing number of people because they can’t pay for the water bill, gas bill and electric bill anymore.”
Petrella predicted that if the world doesn’t take action against the commercialization of water by 2030, half of the planet’s population will have little or no access to water. By 2050, it will climb above 60 per cent.
Segundo Velasquez, president of a Minnesota-based organization that provides aid to impoverished communities in Bolivia, said the perils of water commercialization are already evident.
In Bolivia, multinationals have been buying up water rights, he said.
“No matter if the water was in your own property and you could dig it out of the earth, you had to pay for that water,” said Velasquez, who grew up poor in rural Bolivia.
“The cost and the price of that water was too high – overnight, actually, it doubled in cost.
“In some cases, the monthly salary of a person couldn’t even buy the water.”
Petrella said the world could ensure that everybody has access to at least public toilets if the international community pooled together and invested just $30 billion.
Citizens in developed nations must have the courage to speak out about against converting water into a commodity, he added.
In recent years, reports released by conservative think tanks have suggested some provinces could eventually reap millions of dollars in annual revenue, if not billions, from bulk-water exports.
As parts of the United States dry up, some predict thirsty Americans to come knocking for water transfers, a prospect that has raised concerns among some Canadians.
Opposition parties have criticized the Conservative government for failing to create a national water strategy to deal with key issues like bulk-water exports legislation.
Petrella is encouraged by renewed public attention to the issue.
“I think this could be a very positive process,” he said.
“It’s time that your leaders get the right standard, the right position, vis-a-vis to water.”