Blog: World Water Day Highlights the Need for Water Justice

As we look ahead to World Water Day on March 22, we reflect on the very real water inequities in our own backyard – from rural communities without protected drinking water sources to First Nations communities struggling with reliable access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

World Water Day in 2018 marked the beginning of the United Nations’ Water Action Decade; a recognition of the growing challenges surrounding clean water access, particularly in a changing climate with pressures from population growth and increased urbanization. It highlights the importance of water for the eradication of hunger, poverty and poor health. It also highlights the need for integrated water management. These concerns are equally relevant within Canada as elsewhere in the world. We can’t take access to clean, safe and affordable water for granted.

In May 2000, seven people died after consuming contaminated tap water, a tragedy which left many people concerned about the quality of municipal drinking water. CELA represented the Concerned Walkerton Citizens at the public inquiry which investigated the situation. In 2002, the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry Reports were released, with numerous recommendations to ensure the risk of such tragedies in the future was minimized.

Key to the Commission’s recommendations is the multi-barrier approach, including actively planning for the protection of water sources. In 2006, Ontario passed the Clean Water Act, which enabled planning for protection of municipal drinking water sources (such as lakes, rivers, aquifers). That was followed by the first phase of approving 22 drinking water source protection plans. While First Nations communities have the option to opt in to the Clean Water Act, and some have, many have not for various reasons.

Ontario’s Auditor General recently found “…significant risks remain for drinking water sources for Indigenous communities and areas outside Conservation Authority boundaries, as well as private wells, which in total serve about 18% of Ontario’s population.”  That 18% translates to over 2 million people who don’t benefit from the protections of the Clean Water Act because they live in a First Nation community that hasn’t opted in, in a place outside the scope of a conservation authority, or in an area that isn’t served by municipal drinking water systems.

Communities including Gull Bay, Muskrat Lake, Scugog Island and Northwest Angle are all under short or long term drinking water advisories. Some, like Gull Bay, home of the Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek First Nation have been under drinking water advisories for more than ten years.

CELA continues to advocate for the expanded application of the Clean Water Act to include non-municipal systems and ensure mandatory protection for the many communities across Ontario that are not served by municipal drinking water systems. Additionally, CELA is working to defend the crucial role of conservation authorities in land use planning.

CELA has a long history of supporting Indigenous communities around source water protection, including having developed legal toolkits with Pays Plat First Nation and Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek, the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, the Oneida Nation of the Thames, the Munsee-Delaware Nation. CELA has presented to Indigenous audiences regarding drinking water source protection, including at the invitation of Nokiiwin Tribal Council, Chiefs of Ontario and the Assembly of First Nations.

Although we are fortunate to have a wealth of freshwater in Canada, supplies are not unlimited, nor are they impervious to contamination from lead, PFAs, and other harmful chemicals. These drinking water contaminants are of particular concern to vulnerable communities such children, elderly individuals, First Nations communities, and tenants or other residents who don’t have direct control of their own drinking water supply.

As the current pandemic has led to increased momentum for a green and just recovery, we are reminded that a blue recovery is just as critical. Calls for investments in green energy and land restoration must be accompanied by calls for safe, affordable and accessible water.

As a legal aid clinic, CELA’s top priority is serving low income individuals and vulnerable communities in order to ensure that our work is helping those disproportionately impacted. We strive to ensure that our work moves us toward systemic change and water justice; toward climate resilient communities and healthy watersheds; toward a healthy life for all.