Did you know?... Freshwater facts for Canada and the world

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Water is life. All living things depend on water to support life functions. Human and animal food supplies are dependent upon fresh water through agriculture and fisheries. The spiritual values of water are known to all civilizations and water plays a major role in cultural and recreational activities around the world today.

Growth in global population, the development of the world's civilizations and demands for more water in more places for more purposes than ever before continues. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the world now faces tremendous challenges in managing its water. Water quality continues to deteriorate rapidly due to urbanization, agricultural practices, industrialization and over population, despite some regional successes in clean-up efforts. Approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation.

In response to the emerging global crisis in water scarcity there has been a global water agenda since at least the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, which acknowledged the importance of protecting and improving the human environment. Some highlights of the global water agenda over the past three decades include: the UNESCO First International Conference on Water in Mar Del Plata, Argentina in 1977; the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin in 1990; the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro; the 1st World Water Forum in Marrakech in 1997; the 1st Petersberg Round Table International Dialogue in 1998; the 6th session of United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 6) in New York in 1998; the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in New York in 2000; the 2nd World Water Forum in the Hague in 2000; the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn, Germany in 2001; the Johannesburg "Rio Plus 10" Earth Summit in 2002; and, the World Water Forum which is organized every three years in close collaboration with the authorities of the hosting country.

The UN's Millennium Development Project has set various goals which the 191 UN member states have pledged to meet by 2015. The water Millennium Development Goal (MDG) aims to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water [Source]. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which took place in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, expanded the water MDG to include halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to proper sanitation [Source]. To achieve the water MDG and WSSD sanitation target and move on to full water security by 2025, it is estimated that global spending on new water infrastructure will need to more than double to approximately $180 billion per year over the next 20 to 25 years, from the current $80 billion/year [Source].


Canada has been largely shaped by its geography -- particularly its rivers and lakes, which have provided a focal point for settlement, economic development, and transportation. Aboriginal peoples have always derived physical and spiritual sustenance from water. Waterways carried furs, trade goods, and explorers, stimulating the exploration of Canada's vast interior.

Water is a key component of the modern Canadian economy: it is a fundamental resource for food production, plays an important role in virtually every modern industrial process and many recreational activities, and provides an essential element for urban development across the country. It is the lifeblood of the environment, essential to the health and survival of plants, animals, and people. Water has played, and continues to play, a special role in the growth of our nation and is an integral part of the Canadian identity. Its importance is strongly reflected in Canadian art and literature.

Management of fresh water in Canada has evolved in response to the changing demands we have placed on water, as well as to our growing awareness of the effects of human activities on the aquatic environment. Increasing and often conflicting demands on water use make sustainable management essential. Integration of environmental, economic, and social considerations requires careful thought and attention. Governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and individuals all have important responsibilities and must work together to protect water quality and use water wisely.

We face a number of challenges in managing fresh water in Canada. Water quantity is variable, and parts of Canada have suffered from drought and flooding. Canadians are high per capita users of water, and while water is plentiful, competition is increasing among uses and regionally there are areas where demand and economic activity is constrained by water availability. Although water quality is generally good, someareas are locally or regionally polluted.

Partnerships, which are essential for managing fresh water, must adapt to changing roles of government for water programs and water infrastructure. Community-based initiatives, an effective and often necessary means to manage watersheds, require support to build and maintain networks, good information, and sound science.1

The facts and figures that follow have been organized into four main sections; water quantity, water quality, water use, and  jurisdictions ; with a section on contextual data (population, economy) at the end.

1. Global Water Partnership and World Water Council. Financing Water for All - Report of the World Panel on Financing Global Water Infrastructure.