October 1, 2002
How much longer will we tolerate unsafe drinking water and polluted waterways? When will we crack down on industrial polluters – the chief culprits in many jurisdictions? And when will we clean up the sewage pollution that has become a national disgrace and an international black eye? It is “perhaps Canada’s ugliest environmental secret,” with “pollution on a scale unseen outside the Third World,” reported the Boston Globe. And yet our governments remain unconscionably complacent and indifferent to the need for immediate action.
St. John’s mayor admits water pollution in his city’s harbour is “a shame and a disgrace” but he refuses to clean up unless someone else foots the bill. Meanwhile, the federal government has banned all fishing in St. John’s harbour: The fish have become so contaminated by raw sewage that people could get sick not only from eating them but from merely touching them. The BC government did order Vancouver to clean up but – to delay the cost – it gave the city 28 years. And just last month, an obsolete sewage facility in Winnipeg spewed waste from local industries and from 370,000 people directly into the Red River. Said the Winnipeg Free Press, “The Red River has become Winnipeg’s sewer.” Said one local resident, “This ain’t the kind of thing you expect to happen in this country.”
To stop pollution from reaching the environment, and our drinking water, two urgent steps are required. First, we must stop polluters from using our public waterways as their private cess pools. Cracking down may upset many polluters, including our governments and their corporate friends, but it would be irresponsible not to. They don’t own our waterways. They have no right to harm the environment. They have no right to endanger the public health.
As important, we must build modern plants to treat our drinking water and avoid future Walkerton tragedies. Our governments say we can’t afford to clean up, but in fact, we can’t afford not to. Cheap water that sickens or kills us is no bargain.
Fortunately, Canada does have some role models to look up to. For many years, Moncton residents put up with discoloured, bad-tasting water that put residents’ health at risk. After tolerating pollution for years, the citizens of Moncton rose up and demanded that their politicians deliver clean water ?and they did. Moncton is now seen as an up-and-coming city, a magnet for new jobs and a place where increasing numbers of Canadians choose to raise their families.
What did Moncton’s politicians do? They joined the majority of municipalities in Europe and the U.S. – all of which have higher water standards than we do – and put public health ahead of ideology. These municipalities don’t care who delivers clean water, whether it is a public or a private company, as long as the citizenry receive the high quality they deserve. In Moncton’s case, the citizenry were best served by a private company. The company saved the city $14 million – $17 million and committed to meeting Moncton’s specifications, which the city designed to give it Canada’s cleanest water. “If they don’t meet the specs,” said Moncton’s engineering department, “then they aren’t getting paid.”
This carrot and stick combination – in which the city government sets tough standards for the private sector to meet in order to win a contract, and tough penalties if those standards aren’t met – is an approach we should all encourage. Fortunately, this approach has begun to take hold.
Because of the importance of Canada’s water quality, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Public Management asked me to write a book to influence decision-makers as well as the general public. Liquid Assets was released in November, and I set aside 500 copies for you and other supporters of our water quality work. If you would like to order a copy, to become more familiar with Canada’s water issues and better able to inform your friends and colleagues, please see the ordering information.
Your generous support has made this book possible, as it has our other efforts to solve Canada’s water crisis. I thank you deeply, and hope you will continue your important support.