Some 300 scientists, policy-makers, economists and other stakeholders convene in Ottawa this week for an international conference hosted by the Canadian Water Network (CWN), showcasing latest world research findings and best practices for optimizing water management.
Canada's water experts are now increasingly needed to help countries elsewhere brace for drought, flood and unsafe water problems looming on a 15- to 20-year horizon.
Within a single generation, recent studies show, water demand in many countries will exceed supply by an estimated 40%, with one-third of humanity having half the water required for life's basics. In flood-prone places, meanwhile, catastrophic flood events normally expected once a century - similar to those recently witnessed in Pakistan and Australia - can now be expected every 20 years instead.
The anticipated crises create a fast-growing need for technologies and services to discover, manage, filter, disinfect and/or desalinate water, improve infrastructure and distribution, and reduce water consumption by households, industry and agriculture - the biggest water user by far at 71% worldwide.
'Climate change will affect all societies and ecosystems most profoundly through the medium of water but there is no other way to generalize the crises ahead. At unpredictable times, too much water will arrive in some places and too little in others,' says Zafar Adeel, Chair of UN Water, which coordinates water-related efforts of 28 United Nations organizations and agencies.
He is also Director of the United Nations University's Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
'Water is a local issue demanding responses tailored to specific locations. Sadly, most communities, especially in developing countries, are ill-prepared to adjust to looming new realities. Canadian expertise in water management is greatly needed,' he said.
'Canadians can do well by doing good,' he adds. If the prediction of a $1 trillion water industry in 2020 proves correct (it is estimated today at $400 billion per year), it would be about one-fifth as large as today's global $4.5 trillion construction industry.
'We need to brace for what could easily be humanity's greatest short-term challenges,' says Margaret Catley-Carlson, a former senior official with both the Canadian government and at the United Nations, a renowned global authority on water issues, and a CWN director.
She cites US-led research that, by 2030, global water demand will be 40 percent greater than today's 'accessible, reliable, environmentally sustainable supply,' which constitutes a fraction of the absolute raw freshwater available in nature. Filling the gap with supply-side measures only, however, requires an estimated $200 billion per year; an approach that both raises supply and lowers demand would require $50 to $60 billion.
Says Nicholas Parker, Chairman of Cleantech Group: 'What people don't often realize is how much water there is in everything we make and buy, from t-shirts to wine.' 'Virtual water' describes the volume 'embedded' in a product during its production. A desktop computer, for example, requires 1.5 tonnes (1,500 litres) of water; a pair of denim jeans up to 6 tonnes; a kilogram of wheat 1 tonne; a kilo of chicken 3 to 4 tonnes; a kilo of beef 15 to 30 tonnes.'
And the financial world is looking ahead to the bottom-line impacts of a water-constrained world. Institutional investors managing tens of trillions of dollars are pointedly asking businesses for data about their vulnerability to potential water supply difficulties.
The surface of Canada covered by freshwater lakes and rivers roughly equals the entire area of Spain, Germany and Belgium combined.
However, says Bernadette Conant, Executive Director of the Canadian Water Network, 'It is critical that Canada's relative 'abundance' not make Canadians complacent on the water supply issue, nor divert attention from the critical importance of water quality.'
'Water is not distributed evenly across Canada, nor are its people, industry and environmental needs. Much of Canada's water is frozen or flows north, away from populated areas, and just 1% of its supply is renewed each year by precipitation. The quality and security of that supply underpin public and environmental health, as well as the economy.'
Some regions like western Canada already experience water shortages, she says, while developed areas in the east will face supply shortages due to insufficient planning and management, and elsewhere flooding will be the biggest problem.
Conference speaker Hans Schreier of the University of British Columbia will present research buttressing the need for flood-prone areas to brace for more frequent disasters - adaptation to which represents another potential opportunity for Canada to help internationally.
In many vulnerable places worldwide, catastrophic flood levels normally expected once a century - similar to those recently witnessed in Pakistan and Australia - can now be expected every 20 years instead, he says.
'Our water infrastructure is not designed to cope with this new reality,' says Dr. Schreier.
Indeed, according to fellow conference speaker Robert Tremblay, Research Director of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, claims resulting from extreme weather have increased 20-fold in the past 30 years and flood-related claims now consistently exceed fire and wind insurance claims every year.
Dr. Schreier recommends vulnerable communities everywhere follow the example of several municipalities and adopt a new approach to road and street design.
Not only does this approach mitigate flood damage, polluted runoff normally drained via pipes into lakes and rivers is instead filtered and cleaned as it sinks through the ground, helping compensate the extensive loss of wetlands to development.
Organizers hope the conference advances awareness of not just the problems but of practical new technologies and greater understanding of the changing nature of the global environmental market.