Climate Change and Water: Health and Human Rights

By Karen Rooney

For most Canadians turning on a tap and having access to quality running water is something that we do not even think about.

And yet, as climate change continues to threaten our current way of life, the quantity and the quality of the water coming out of those taps may change dramatically. Climate change, if left unabated, will inevitably impact the water available to use for drinking, agriculture, industry and power generation. Even areas that have never needed to worry about water availability may suffer to some degree.

How does this pertain to the health and wellbeing of Canadians?

Many First Nations communities across the country can already attest to the dangers and devastations that can occur when water is not available or suitable for consumption. Over one third of Canada’s First Nation communities live without access to water that they consider safe to drink. This is due to many factors – pollution, environmental damage, forced relocation, extreme weather (flooding, fires) – all of which are also the impacts of climate change and the factors that cause it.

As extreme weather patterns and events such as massive flooding become more and more common, potable water quality will become compromised due to storm water runoff, sewage overflows, salt-water contamination and increasing sedimentation. Changes in climate temperature will affect water quality on a more gradual basis by creating the ideal conditions for widespread algal blooms, bacterial growth and changes in watershed vegetation.

The effects of climate change on water supply have been very well documented. Increasing global temperatures and precipitation will mean an earlier and increased snowmelt, rapid water runoff, and the inability of underground aquifers to fully replenish themselves. Warmer temperatures will most likely also lead to an increased demand and use of water – corresponding with likeliness of restricted supply due to the above-mentioned factors.

Aging public infrastructure may be ill equipped to cope with the demands of increased quality control programs and water sanitation needs. Corrosion caused by increasing saltwater inflow, pipe breakage due to sedimentation and general flood damage are all likely issues that will become more common as climate change exerts its indirect effects on our infrastructure. As many communities, especially First Nations, currently rely on trucked in water in order to meet their requirements, the additional failure of public infrastructure to meet and cope with these new challenges may open municipal services up to privatization. Water, essential to human life and activity, may become commoditized and a privilege available only to those who can afford it.

All of the above concerns may become public health issues, as conditions will be favorable to both the growth of bacteria and water-borne illnesses. Coupled with a potential inability to effectively monitor for and protect against the spread of those illnesses, the public will be left vulnerable and exposed to harmful, and possibly deadly, pathogens.

Clean water is a right that should be accessible to all. The potential effects of climate change on water quality and quantity should be very concerning to all Canadians. We should also be aware that many of our fellow citizens live without this right on a daily basis and be prepared to address this blatant violation of access to services. The threat of climate change should prompt us all to look critically at the public systems which will bear the brunt of the impacts and examine how we can begin to better prepare them for the coming challenges. It should also prompt us to make the appropriate reparations and changes to the systems that are currently not providing healthy, quality access to water to many Canadians – regardless of their geographical location or ethnicity.


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