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Is our water supply infinite?

Canada is often touted as having over 20% of the world’s freshwater supply putting the country in the top 10 worldwide for total renewable water resources per capita. Not too much cause for concern you might say and the word renewable itself implies an infinite supply. When you start to unpick the finer details around our water resources, access to renewable water is in actual fact around 7% and then somewhere close to half of this drains out into the Arctic ocean and is therefore unusable by the most densely populated areas of southern Canada.

No over-abundance of water supply

Different water supply and infrastructure challenges are emerging even within different areas within countries. A combination of factors including weak governance and lack of action on root causes has put Canada and many areas of the world in a precarious situation when it comes to water supply; this natural resource is not always natural, nor is there a limitless supply.

The factors affecting water supplies are compounding to create extreme water shortages and drought conditions for some, yet others are seeing dangerously rising water levels and flooding. According to a 14-year NASA mission, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which observed changes in the water mass of the earth, there’s a worrying trend of the wetter areas getting wetter and the drier areas becoming even drier.

In Canada, this trend has presented itself in events such as the 2013 Alberta floods and rising sea levels on the Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions. On the other hand, southern Ontario could well be at more risk of serious drought conditions and even forest fires should the climate continue to warm at the same rate - a sobering thought combined with a scarce water problem.

The most water-stressed region on earth is the Middle East and North Africa according to the World Resources Institute. Encouragingly, certain countries in this region have found opportunity through adversity and are finding inventive ways to treat and reuse previously untapped wastewater.

Likewise, countries may learn much from China in innovating against water stress. The government is investing heavily in programs such as ‘Sponge City’. This initiative uses urban infrastructure backed by public-private financing to reduce flooding, increase groundwater absorption and replenish water supply with the specific aim of reusing at least 70% of its rainwater. Programs like this are still in their infancy and don’t come without challenges with regards to urban planning and governance, nonetheless, their efforts have to be admired.

What’s causing the shifts in our water quality and availability?

By 2025 it’s predicted that over half of the world’s population will reside in water-stressed areas - this is to say, areas that suffer deteriorating quantity and quality of freshwater sources. Possibly the biggest contributor and underlying cause to waning or increasingly unsafe drinking water, has been population growth over the past 150 years. Canada may have more water than most, however it’s also the 3rd biggest water user per capita and more people amounts to;

  • Increased urbanization - population movement from more rural to urban areas and urban development with regards to housing and transport as a result. More and more people living in cities mean changes in land usage, alterations to natural water run-off and increasing water temperatures through the urban-heat-island effect.

  • Increased pollution - this comes in many forms from individuals to agriculture and food production and industry and a report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in 2018 states that the government is still allowing a massive amount of pollution to flow into lakes and rivers resulting in deteriorating water quality. It now appears that there’s little protection for consumers under the Clean Water Act either. The four main culprits of water contamination include agriculture, municipal sewage, industrial waste and over-salting from chloride used on roads. It’s widely thought that there’s been severe under-reporting and under- regulation of businesses that cause the lion’s share of pollution historically. This is a complex area to regulate, particularly as it’s difficult to track the source of water pollution in an area such as agriculture. Industries cannot be expected to self-regulate their polluting activities as they may have done in the past and it’s clear that new efficiencies and approaches are crucial if we’re to conserve clean water.

  • Depleting freshwater supply - a bigger population using more energy and resources, requires much more clean water (clean being the preeminent point). Agriculture, whilst also being a huge polluter, creates a big demand on water resources so where do we get the additional water to provide food for an increasing population? This also goes for the electricity industry, another big drain on water consumption with no real plan on reducing reliance on the grid. Pollution is not easily removed from water and as the ecosystems that normally act as a natural protector of water are diminished through pollution, it becomes somewhat of a vicious circle.

All of these things are closely linked and whilst there doesn’t seem to be a source of information explicitly proving a causal link between water stress and climate change, the correlations are evident for everyone.

Water infrastructure covers a myriad of assets that span water supply and treatment, stormwater and irrigation systems to name but a few. The quality of this infrastructure has direct bearing on the safety of drinking water and how much polluting overflow comes from wastewater treatment plants. Sub-par water infrastructure became an even higher risk to the global population in the past year as three quarters of inhabitants in developing countries don’t have access to somewhere to wash with warm soapy water.

There can’t be a realistic conversation around water conservation if the matter of inadequate water infrastructure is not broached at the same time. Developing countries need new infrastructure, developed countries need vital updates to their ageing infrastructure. There is no easy resolution to this when it’s estimated that 6.7 trillion will be required by 2050 to address water supply and sanitation infrastructure alone.

Worldwide cooperation on the agenda

Commercial real estate is a big contributor to water scarcity, however the issue is far bigger than one industry. Just as climate change efforts needed a global approach, the availability of water demands the same attention from both policymakers and the public. There’s a growing disparity in where we source our water and how we use it safely and sustainably to the protection of public health, the environment and our very existence.

Populations are almost certain to carry on growing and it may look slightly different, but consumerism will almost certainly return to the level it was pre-2020, driving pollutant increases once again. Another big concern is, if left unaddressed, water and ensuing food shortages could displace millions from their native countries causing an even bigger problem, both societal and political. Unless we recognize and take actions to address the challenges we’ve touched upon, the future looks questionable at the very least.

We can’t reverse the depletion to our water resources but we can all make some changes to ensure we have some for the future. Commercial real estate depends on having access to water supply, where and how it’s needed. As an industry however, this looks more and more unlikely until a unified and more urgent approach to sustainable development is adopted. Initiatives such as vertical forests, smart metering, greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting can all help CRE developers and investors to play a part in lessening an increasingly unsettling problem.

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