March 22nd is UN World Water Day (webpage linked here). On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to a resolution declaring the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. The Harper government once again embarrassed Canadians on the world stage, abstaining from the vote even though there are many communities across Canada, including First Nations, which do not have access to clean, safe water.
It’s undeniably true that Canadians tend to take fresh water for granted and often fail to take the necessary steps to protect this invaluable gift. A perfect example of this national failure is ongoing. In the 2008 Speech from the Throne, Harper committed to introducing legislation to ban all bulk water transfers or exports from Canadian freshwater basins. The Harper government is currently reneging on this commitment, having voted down Bill C-267 and replaced it with a much-watered down version (pun intended), Bill C-383, the Transboundary Waters Protection Act, which if passed will only protect 10% of Canada’s fresh water resources.
It is easy to find examples of water abuse in Canada, but perhaps no other is more blatant than the poisoning of water in the Alberta bitumen project. The largest industrial undertaking on the planet is variously referred to as the Tar Sands or the Oil Sands, depending on your perspective. If you are a pragmatist and view continued economic growth as both vital and inevitable, you’re an oil-sander. If you are a superpragmatist and view the continued existence of a livable planet as vital but not necessarily inevitable, you’re a tar-sander.
The tar sands consume between 2.5 and 4 barrels of water per barrel of oil. About 90 percent of the water used in the tar sands is discharged into a vast system of toxic tailings ponds.  These ponds, which span over 50 kilometers and can be seen from space, are built right on the banks of the Athabasca River and are often held in place only with earthen dykes. Birds that land on the ponds die. (From Waterdefense.org)
Unlined toxic tailings ponds range in size up to 9000 acres. They contain enough toxin to cover the surface of Lake Erie a foot deep. New projects are being added every year and production is expected to increase from 1.31 million barrels of oil per day in 2008 to 3 million barrels per day in 2018. Three million barrels of oil per day would mean that between 7 and 12 million barrels of water will be withdrawn from the Athabasca ecosystem and poisoned every day.
The tar sands are upstream from the Peace-Athabasca delta, a globally significant wetland, central to a major migratory bird flyway. The waters feeding the delta are being drawn down and the toxic burden of the waters is being increased daily. Already, the cancer rate of Fort Chipewyan residents, living downstream from the tar sands, is 10 times the national average and includes rarely seen forms.
A compromise position would be to slow tar sands development until better technological processes that result in less damage to the environment can be developed. After all, the resource is in the ground and it isn’t going anywhere. However, with billions of dollars of support from the Harper government, it’s full steam ahead and damn the consequences.
The tar sands photos used here are from Garth Lenz’s TED Talk, The True Cost of Oil.