It all began with industrious engineers who understood hydrology and the importance of water. They built dams and created wetlands throughout Canada, and in doing so had a system in place for water preservation and purification.
Then the felt hat became fashionable, and those engineers ended up as pelts on long canoes for shipment to Europe. Canada’s beaver — our original aquatic ecologist — was threatened and watersheds in Canada depleted.
At the height of the fur trade, more than 180,000 pelts were shipped a year. In times of prosperity, such as the opening of the fur trade, money trumps long-term vision, and unintended consequences are unknown or may not be considered. The harvest of the beaver had an impact on wetlands and our current-day contribution to climatic change.
Wetlands are multifunctional systems that purify water and encourage a system of regeneration. It is estimated that 70 per cent of wetlands in Canada (65 per cent in Alberta) have been lost as part of this disruption in the natural order of things.
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I often think of man’s impact on the land: When I travel in the special areas of eastern Alberta, I surmise that a million head of buffalo would have continually regenerated that land and that there must have been adequate water there. A million head of cattle or sheep managed in a mob on the move would also work — but we have not sheep, cattle, or bison in sufficient numbers to replicate this action.
The fact that Canada’s largest mob is lost has had an environmental effect on the land. In looking at soil maps in Canada, it is clear that the best soil is in areas where buffalo once roamed or valleys flooded. Soil then is born of natural occasions prompted by nature and by use of her animals, and then aided by management to increase sequestration.
A balancing act between social, environmental, and economic interests always comes into play.
As I participated in a recent global water discussion, it was clear that the flow of thought was toward water preservation as less than two per cent of the world’s water is fresh. Canada owns nearly 20 per cent of it (with seven per cent easily accessible). This is an environmental interest and one we should be protecting.
On our coasts, Canada is blessed with warm-water ports, which are a strong economic driver. The Port of Vancouver handles 50 per cent of Canada’s vessel traffic, which then travels through a narrow shipping lane shared with many species of marine life. Increasing traffic on the West Coast may have an economic benefit, but is detrimental from an environmental perspective. Atlantic Canada is the country’s fishing and exploration hub. Increasing exploration may deeply affect the food supply.
All these activities impact phytoplankton which produces half of the world’s oxygen. (The rest is produced by the ecology of trees, shrubs, plants, and grass.) We need water to breathe.
How do we protect the quality of the water when we don’t know what beavers know? How do we use less water when the economy is exploding? Do we fully appreciate and understand the profound relationship between action and consequence? And is there a political will to invest in science and technology to ensure water for all?
In the global water discussion, corporate greed was identified as a driver in the reduction of water quality and that all the beavers in the world could not reduce some of the harm inflicted. An example of economic greed tied to corporate demands is Alberta’s allowing of fresh water use for fracking. Depleting fresh water sources for extraction is neither ethical nor sustainable. Increased populations are also pulling from those aquifers. The question becomes: What do you want your fresh water used for? Do you want water to drink to sustain your life or do you want that water used to support the export of fossil fuels?
If you should choose to have drinking water, that is a social interest. Constitutionally everyone in Canada has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. I personally interpret that as access to food and water to sustain life. How do we take a societal need and right for water, understand and implement environmental practice to ensure protection or enhancement of water (above, upon and below the surface)? And foster the political will to focus on ecological strategies, science, and technology to drive change?
While we cannot ask the beaver or buffalo for their answers, we can educate ourselves on the importance and scarcity of water as we look to the importance of watersheds, wetlands, and economic drivers such as warm-water ports. We can decide within our homes and businesses what the priorities for water use, preservation, regeneration, and access will be.
The responsibility for change in Canada’s appreciation of social, environmental and political actions starts with each of us through changed behaviour and advocating for the protection of Canada’s water supply and the preservation of the animals that play a critical role in water, oxygen, and food for all.