How much of the world’s fresh water is in Canada?

Fresh water occurs naturally on the earth’s surface – in lakes, ponds, ice caps and ice shields, glaciers, and rivers and underground as groundwater in underground streams and aquifers. Fresh water has low concentrations of dissolved solids and salts.

Canada’s fresh water resources represent 7 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water. About 20 percent of the world’ fresh water is found in Canada, but less than half of it is considered renewable. Most of the fresh water is in the form of fossil water in glaciers, underground aquifers, and lakes. The total amount of fresh water is not affected by human uses, which is why it is considered an inexhaustible resource. However, water must be of certain quality and in a particular place to be useful (i.e. to be considered renewable).

Canada’s freshwater resources are a generous endowment for a country of 35 million people. At the same time, more than 50 percent of it drains northward into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. This means that fresh water is unavailable to 85 percent of people living along Canada’s southern border. While abundant, the remaining fresh water supply is heavily used.

Estimates of Canada’s fresh water supply vary from 5.6 percent to 9 percent to 20 percent of the total water supply. This depends on how ‘fresh water’ is defined – whether it means ‘existing’, ‘usable’, or ‘available’. Whatever the amount available, Canadian households and businesses consume 350 L of fresh water a day per capita. Canada is second only to the United States which consumes the largest amount of water per capita. The average citizen needs 20 to 40 litres for sanitation and drinking.

Many believe that fresh water will be the ‘liquid gold’ or ‘the oil of the 21st century’, causing wars between nations. Whether this happens because of water or political, economic, or environmental fallout, Canada will be one of the major players. During the past years, debates have intensified on whether the country should sell water for profit, like timber, oil, and gas. Another issue is whether, under the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs, fresh water is considered a commodity to be traded and sold or it is a vital resource. Some argue that water should be sold to overseas customers. Selling water from the Gisborne Lake, for example, will create more jobs for jobs-poor communities in Newfoundland where unemployment rates reach over 40 percent. In the view of opponents, the assumption that water is infinite is false, and water bankruptcy may result. A study by the United Nations shows than by 2025, 75 percent of people on the planet will be water-poor. Opponents argue that fresh water is not a commodity but a public trust and essential need. Water belongs to no one and everyone in Canada. Moreover, large-scale export of water cannot satisfy the economic and social needs of distant nations. It will deepen inequalities because water will be affordable to the privileged only.