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Clean Drinking Water Should Be a Human Right
Canada is among the world’s wealthiest nations, but our wealth is not equitably distributed. Many communities, particularly northern and Aboriginal, suffer from poor access to healthy and affordable food, clean water, proper housing and other necessary infrastructure. An ironic example of this disparity is at Shoal Lake, about two hours east of Winnipeg. There, two First Nations, Shoal Lake 39 and 40, are next to the City of Winnipeg’s main drinking-water supply, but Shoal Lake 40 has been on a boil-water advisory for decades.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Shoal Lake’s story is complicated. To begin, the Ontario-Manitoba border runs through the middle of the lake. Winnipeg has drawn its drinking water from the Manitoba side through a 153-kilometre aqueduct since 1914.
I visited Shoal Lake during the national Blue Dot Tour in support of environmental rights. Driving east along the Trans-Canada Highway toward Kenora, we crossed the aqueduct before arriving in Kejick, home of Shoal Lake 39. Chief Fawn Wapioke from Shoal Lake 39 and Chief Erwin Redsky from Shoal Lake 40 greeted us. We then participated in a traditional water ceremony organized by Shoal Lake 39 elders. Chief Wapioke explained that lake water taken for Winnipeg requires the community to maintain artificial water levels, which affects fishing and wild rice harvesting.
I also visited neighbouring Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, reached from the mainland by a short barge ride. Originally on a thin point jutting out from the lake’s west side, the community was cut off from its neighbors in 1914 by a dike and canal built to channel swampy water from the drinking-water intake pipe, converting the peninsula into an island.
The canal blocks access to the west, and Shoal Lake blocks access to the east. In summer, when the barge is running, there’s no problem leaving Shoal Lake 40 via Shoal Lake 39 and Highway 673. In winter, it’s possible to cross Shoal Lake by snowmobile or on foot, and a makeshift winter road has provided access to the west for the past few years. But twice a year, during freeze-up and spring thaw, it’s unsafe to cross the lake by road, barge or foot, isolating the community from the outside world, often for weeks at a time.
The situation is so serious people have died waiting for medical attention to arrive from Kenora, only an hour away on the Trans-Canada Highway. Stories abound about women miscarrying, houses burning down and other personal and public safety issues. “We were told that the City of Winnipeg’s removal of a secure land connection to First Nation No. 40 has directly led to the deaths of nine First Nation members,” says a letter from the International Joint Commission to the U.S. and Canadian governments. The commission also said First Nations weren't adequately compensated.
Less than 20 years ago, commercial fishing made Shoal Lake 40 economically self-sufficient, but Ontario’s government ended that in the early 1980s over concerns about overfishing. Eighteen years ago, a boil-water advisory was issued and never lifted because the community of 250 was deemed too small to justify a water-treatment plant. Today, an open garbage dump and overflowing septic tanks mar the island.
The human body is about 60 percent water. In a sense, this means the people of Winnipeg have a very real connection to the First Nations territories at Shoal Lake, source of the water they use for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing. But while Winnipeg residents enjoy clean water, the people of Shoal Lake 40 suffer from substandard water, which puts their health at risk every time they turn on the tap. This is more than just unfair, and more than just an environmental problem. It’s an abrogation of the basic right of all Canadians to have access to clean, safe drinking water.
Canada may be a wealthy, developed country, but the fact that such deplorable conditions persist in places like Shoal Lake, and in hundreds of other First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities across Canada, is a national shame and must be resolved immediately. It’s yet another reason why the right to a healthy environment needs to be recognized by all levels of government in Canada—and ultimately, in our Constitution.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?