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Topical Information for Parliamentarians

Water in Canada

July 28, 2004

Water is of vital importance to Canada’s environment, economy and population.  Water not only represents one of the primary environmental concerns of Canadians, but is an important element of our culture, history, and national identity. 

As we move into the 21st century, water managers and policy makers must face new threats to freshwater resources.  These threats include pollution, the impacts of climate change, a resurgence of water-related diseases, and the destruction of freshwater ecosystems. 

Increased global water consumption, combined with inadequate water management, is creating many problems, including:

  • Lack of access to drinking water in certain countries
  • Water that is polluted and unsafe
  • Chronic undernourishment due to a lack of water available for agriculture
  • Destruction of natural habitat as the result of hydroelectric projects

Recent water contamination events and the national debate in recent years about bulk exports of water to the United States are Canadian symptoms of a worldwide water crisis.  Is Canada ready to deal with these problems, and how does it foresee the future management of this resource?

Canadians live in a country that has an apparently abundant supply of water and that is among the world’s leaders in terms of the quantity of renewable freshwater within its borders.  This abundance is, however, an illusion.  Sixty percent of Canada’s freshwater flows  north  toward  the Arctic, while 90% of its population lives less then 300 kilometres from the American border.  Canada must, therefore, adopt effective management strategies to protect this resource. 

Most challenges in managing water are related to one or more of the following three areas:

  • Protecting public health
  • Protecting watersheds and ecosystems
  • Ensuring a sustainable water supply for the future, and adequate infrastructure

The Threat to Freshwater

Human activity is one of the biggest threats to freshwater, especially its supply, quality and quantity.  Human activity has had profound effects on the aquatic environment, often leading to habitat loss and a decrease in biodiversity, and contributing to a build-up of toxins in the food chain and a decline in the quality of water prior to treatment.

The National Water Research Institute (NWRI), Canada’s largest freshwater research facility, has identified threats to sources of drinking water and aquatic ecosystem health.  These factors affect the source of freshwater, or have the potential for contamination, or restrict the availability and the quantity of water. 

The NWRI has also produced a document discussing specifically the threats to water availability in Canada

Jurisdiction Over Water in Canada

Jurisdiction over water is a complex issue.  Neither water nor the environment is specifically mentioned in the sections of the Constitution Act, 1867 that define the distribution of federal and provincial responsibilities.  Jurisdiction will differ depending on the issue at hand or on defined areas of responsibility.  Responsibility for water is often shared.  The provinces have primary responsibility for the management of water resources, including both surface and groundwater, and are responsible for:

  • Legislation in matters of water supply, pollution control, and thermal and hydroelectric power development
  • Authorization of water use development
  • Flow regulation

Federal responsibilities include:

  • Boundary and transboundary waters
  • Fisheries
  • Navigation
  • Water on federal lands, in the territories and on First Nations reserves

Shared federal-provincial responsibilities include:

  • Agriculture
  • Health
  • Interprovincial water issues
  • Significant national water issues

Although the Constitution Act does not expressly assign responsibility for drinking water to any level of government, the issue is primarily a provincial and territorial matter.  The provinces have power over drinking water within their boundaries. 

The determination of responsibility for drinking water is complicated by the fact that, while sources of water are generally under provincial jurisdiction and protected by environmental legislation, the treatment and distribution of the water focuses on public health considerations.  Environment and public health are matters too broad to be assigned to one level of government, although the province plays a major regulatory role.  The provinces define the role of local governments (municipalities), which operate under provincial legislation to deliver water services to most Canadians.

By comparison, in the United States, the federal government provides strong legal protection for drinking water.  The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act sets minimum national standards for all 50 states of the union.  The Act, which was strengthened in 1996, is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.  It does not, however, prevent the United States from experiencing serious drinking water problems.

Despite the Government of Canada’s limited role in the delivery of safe drinking water, Health Canada has, since 1968, helped develop guidelines on drinking-water quality and has provided secretariat services to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water.  In May 2002, the committee published a document on the use of the multi-barrier approach to managing Canada’s drinking water.  According to a 2001 report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, however, Health Canada is not aware of the quality of drinking water across the country and does not know whether the provinces apply the guidelines.

The federal government is responsible also for bottled water, since it is considered a food.  Health Canada defines the standards for bottled water under the Food and Drugs Act, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency implements the provisions of the Act that apply to inspections, investigations and emergency situations.  The federal government is currently revising its regulations on bottled water.

Some believe that the federal government should play a greater role with respect to the quality of Canada’s drinking water.  A bill that was introduced in the Senate in 2001 (but died on the Order Paper) proposed amending the Food and Drugs Act to add the water in water supply systems to the list of foods subject to federal regulation and approval.  A number of observers consider that this proposal, while having merit in terms of its aim, could raise constitutional difficulties.

Water:  A Strategic Resource

Various strategic water-related initiatives have been undertaken jointly by the federal government and the provinces, and by Canada and other countries.  These initiatives include legal instruments and voluntary measures.  Their purpose is to prevent a global water crisis which, in the opinion of some international experts, could be imminent and would result not from a shortage, but rather from management deficiencies, both domestic and international.  Canada has participated in a number of initiatives, including those of the World Water Council:  the World Water Vision initiative of 1998 and the three World Water Forums (1997, 2000, 2003).

Within Canada, various ecosystem-based initiatives have been developed since 1988 to alleviate pressures on aquatic ecosystems.  They take into account economic and social concerns, as well as environmental concerns, over watersheds.  These initiatives are the product of partnerships between the federal and provincial or territorial governments and often require the cooperation of individuals, communities, Aboriginal peoples and private enterprise.

At the end of 2002, the Government of Quebec presented its Politique nationale de l’eau, which provides for reduction of water wastage in private homes – Quebecers consume on average 400 litres a day – and the implementation of better long-term management by municipalities.  Alberta has developed a strategy entitled Water for Life:  Alberta’s Strategy for Sustainability to manage provincial water systems and to assure its residents of an adequate supply of high-quality water.  Partly in response to a 2002 report on the contamination of drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario has introduced an action plan to provide Ontarians with Canada’s most reliable water, including new regulations on the protection of drinking water.  In addition, Ontario has prepared a White Paper on watershed-based source protection planning.  At this time, most provinces have either a safe drinking water strategy, a water resource management plan based on watersheds, or both.

The Federal Policy on Water and Other Federal Initiatives

The last formal federal policy on water dates from 1987.  At that time, the federal government had identified two goals with respect to water:

  • To protect and enhance the quality of the water resource
  • To promote the wise and efficient management and use of water

Five strategies touching on water pricing, leadership in science, integrated planning, renewed and consolidated legislation, and public awareness were proposed.  Most observers would agree that the country is by now in need of a major revision of its national policy on water.

Recent initiatives at the federal level include the establishment of an interdepartmental committee on water made up of Assistant Deputy Ministers from 19 departments.  A Federal Water Framework has been developed, and a Federal Water Research Network (FWRN) has been put in place to integrate and coordinate federal research activities.  The FWRN involves five departments:

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food
  • Environment
  • Fisheries and Oceans
  • Health
  • Natural Resources

This initiative complements the funding by the federal government, since 2001, of a Network of Centres of Excellence on water, the Canadian Water Network.

Prepared by
François Côté, Analyst
Parliamentary Information and Research Service



Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Agriculture and the Environment – Water.

Environment Canada. Freshwater Website.

Environment Canada. A Primer on Fresh Water: Questions and Answers.

Fisheries and Oceans. Canadian Waters.

Health Canada. Water Quality and Health.

Statistics Canada. Human activity and the environment: annual statistics, 16-201-XPE, Ottawa, 2003.


British Columbia






New Brunswick

Prince Edward Island

Nova Scotia

Newfoundland and Labrador


Northwest Territories

Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment



International Joint Commission

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Access to water in developing countries. Postnote 178. Parliament of the United Kingdom, 2002.

Rosegrant, Mark W., Ximing Cai and Sarah A. Cline. Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis. International Food Policy Research Institute, 2002.

World Health Organization. The Right to Water, 2003.

World Water Council


Christensen, Randy. Waterproof: Canada’s Drinking Water Report Card. Sierra Legal Defence Fund, 2001.


National Water Research Institute

Canadian Water Network


Johansen, David. Bulk Water Removals and the NAFTA. TIPS-20E. Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 9 January 2003.

Labelle, Christine and Frédéric Forge. Water: Tomorrow's Strategic Issue.  PRB 00-33E. Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 16 February 2001.

Côté, François.






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