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Nine questions about water

The Walrus talks water in Halifax

by Moira Peters

Earlier this week nine people--scientists, artists, activists, historians and business people who share a connection with water—asked questions about our lakes, rivers, oceans and even our clouds. Photo Moira Peters
Earlier this week nine people--scientists, artists, activists, historians and business people who share a connection with water—asked questions about our lakes, rivers, oceans and even our clouds. Photo Moira Peters

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Nine people--scientists, artists, activists, historians and business people who share a connection with water—took to the stage at Spatz Theater in Halifax this past Monday to ask questions about the hydrosphere, our lakes, rivers, oceans and even our clouds.

The Walrus Talks Water event was presented by the Walrus Foundation, which publishes The Walrus, a Canadian general interest magazine, in partnership with Labatt, which owns the Oland Brewery on Agricola Street.

Beer, you see, is 97 per cent water.

What is water? asked Kevin McMahon, filmmaker.

Water is everywhere, but we don't notice it, we don't see it as a system. Take a Canadian icon, Niagara Falls. It is but a limb of a larger system, with upstream and downstream implications. As tourists stand beside family or arm-in-arm with a lover, bathing in the mist of the Falls, they are lifting their faces to a cascade of toxins (from the chemical dumpsites upstream) from a temporary waterfall (temporary because massive hydropower turbines reduce Niagara Falls to half outside of peak tourist hours).

This system, like so many other parts of the global hydrospere, is invisible...unless you choose to look, think and ask questions. We are two-thirds water. It's use and abuse matters to us.

Can you imagine treating our farms to the same indiscriminate sewage, garbage and trawling practices that we do the oceans? asked Susanna Fuller, marine biologist.

Oysters, scallops, lobster, mackerel, haddock: volumes of protein that come from the sea, wild foods that, unlike moose and pheasant, still regularly grace our dinner tables.

The second piece of legislation drafted in Canada--second only to the legislation that formed the post-colonial nation--was the Fisheries Act. Depending where you live, seven to seventeen per cent of your food comes from the ocean.

Treating this food simply as stock, landing, catch, export and quota leads to unsustainable fishing policies and practices. For example, cod is an endangered species, but we still eat it and put it into pet food.

And, in a time when we are realizing that our farmers need to be supported and celebrated, we still treat the people who fish with little regard. And if they don't matter, how can we care about the way they fish, or where they fish?

What is the cost of watering down environmental legislation? asked John Smol, professor of biology.

Acid rain hit the headlines in the 1980s, but it began about a century earlier. Although it seems that acid rain was "caught" in time, ripples of it remain, in the form of calcium disappearing from water systems, a deficiency that makes its way into food webs. In the US, compliance with acid rain policies cost $3.1 billion per year, but the cost of cleaning up acid rain-damaged ecosystems amounts to $221 billion per year.

Year after year sediment accumulates at the bottom of lakes, allowing scientists to understand the evolution of local ecosystems. The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Kenora, Ontario, a unique and sophisticated research station, became the most famous lake lab in the world. Under Bill C-38, the federal government, in June 2012, closed the ELA, citing its high cost. The ELA cost $2 million per year. Its closure threatens the loss of 50 years of monitoring data.

Why must we buy water? asked Dave Courchene (Nii Gaani Aki Inini), Turtle Lodge creator.

We have evolved to a point of disconnect and disrespect for ecology, but Mother Earth will not let us destroy her, because the laws of nature are self-defining and self-enforcing. In this moment, we shall take the children to the land and explain why we can't drink from the rivers. By the destiny of Mother Earth, she will teach us how to live without destroying others.

Water gives birth, and carries in its spirit the memory of creation. We have overstepped the spirit, and we will be kept in line.

Can water become a collective right, a public commons? asked Angela Giles, Atlantic Regional Coordinator for the Council of Canadians.

In 2010, the United Nations recognized the human right to water and sanitation. Still, well over 1800 drinking water advisories were issued in Canada this past January alone, a great many of them in First Nations communities.

Free trade agreements often grant industry the right to water as a commodity, which gives industry, under investor state dispute settlement clauses, the right to use a host country's water in its pursuit of profit, regardless of local law or regulation protecting water supplies.

But treating water as a commons rather than a commodity would approach policy decisions prioritizing public input and water health.

In making this shift in thinking about water, we can learn a lot from Indigenous peoples and their relationship to water.

Can we see the ocean as a crucial, sensitive part of our lives? asked Alanna Mitchell, science journalist.

Every second breath you take comes from algae in the ocean producing oxygen. The ocean contains the switch of life, and climate change is destroying its balance.

Corals have no brain and only one orifice, but they somehow "know" how to procreate by secreting into the water sperm and egg at exactly the same time. But recently, coral spawning has reduced 80 per cent of Caribbean corals.

When carbon is burned into the atmosphere, carbonic acid dissolves into the ocean. The ocean's pH changes: it is now 30 per cent more acidic than before the industrial revolution.

Sea creatures have a hard time making shells; the same goes for the ocean's reef, bones and teeth. Fish get stupid, swimming toward predators instead of fleeing them. Baby octopuses climb up fishermen's ropes to get away from the acidic water.

If we stop putting ancient carbon into the atmosphere, sea health might return.

What will the HMS Erebus reveal about Franklin expedition? asked John Geiger, author.

The legendary fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew and ships, who never returned from an 1845 expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage, is a mystery. The only evidence for what happened include notes left on King William Island by some of the crew, and Inuit stories about sightings of the ships and crew.

Finally, last September, a Parks Canada expedition found the HMS Erebus at the bottom of Queen Maude Gulf. In exploring the wreck, will it reveal logs, images, human remains? How will the final chapter read for the Franklin expedition?

Can hydro power be good? asked Chris Henderson, clean energy advisor to Aboriginal communities.

Hydro power in Canada lowers electricity prices and can lessen our carbon footprint. Yet the massive flooding that typically occurs

However, hydro power has a history of negatively impacting people and ecologies with massive flooding that can increase the release of methane (a greenhouse gas) and alter landscapes in irreversible ways.

But Hydropower can be low impact, even with big projects, as long as we make decisions that migrate us toward a restorative concept of energy. Aboriginal involvement is key, because their wisdom insists on considering the species, landscape and cultural risks involved in power projects--considerations that are in everyone's best interest.

Do you have water vision? asked Stephen Leahy, environmental reporter.

Earth is mostly water. However, if all the water on Earth were represented by one litre, the accessible freshwater would be the equivalent of about one drop.

Each Canadian consumes 8000 litres of water per day, 7500 of which is hidden in the stuff we use, and cannot be recovered or recycled. An empty Coke bottle takes five litres of water to make. A pair of jeans takes 7600 litres. Most of the water we consume is manifest in food, but 40 per cent of the food in North America is wasted.

At the same time as our rampant consumption of the Earth's precious supply of water, two out of five people on the planet face water scarcity. This is the biggest problem we face. Reducing overall consumerism is obviously a step toward global water justice, but even before that, we have to see the water in the world around us.

Moira lives and writes in Maitland.

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