Water and Wastewater Treatment in Canada: Tapping into Private-Sector Capital, Expertise, and Efficiencies

Elizabeth Brubaker
September 4, 2008

Chapter from: A Breath of Fresh Air: Market Solutions for Improving Canada’s Environment, edited by Nicholas Schneider

Walkerton. North Battleford. Kashechewan. Such com­munities have come to symbolize the breakdown of Canadian water and wastewater utilities. Across Canada, hundreds of communities provide unsafe drinking water or inadequate wastewater treatment, threatening human health and the environment. The vast majority of the troubled systems are publicly owned, publicly operated, publicly financed, and publicly regulated. Canada’s lim­ited experience with public-private partnerships, along with the more extensive experience of other jurisdic­tions, suggests that private investment, private expertise, and private efficiencies can and should play an impor­tant role in solving the problems besetting the country’s public systems.
The precise number of substandard water systems in Canada is unknown. There is no single source of comprehensive data on utility performance. Although Environment Canada periodically surveys munici­palities, many fail to provide the requested informa­tion. Only 312 municipalities, representing 9.7 million Canadians, responded to questions about the quality and quantity of drinking water in Environment Canada’s 2001 survey of municipal water use. The results, while not necessarily representative of Canada at large, were troubling: municipalities representing 25% of the population of the responding municipalities had experienced water-quality problems that year, and municipalities accounting for more than 22% had issued boil-water advisories. Furthermore, those accounting for almost 25% had suffered water shortages (Environment Canada, 2004). Boil-water advisories are common in small and remote communities across Canada (Health Canada, 2006). In 2006, one estimate put the number of advisories at more than 1,000 (New Democratic Party of Canada, 2006).  Even large cities are not exempt, as illustrated by the boil-water advisory issued in Vancouver in November 2006.

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