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A mas­sive amount of ‘vir­tual wa­ter’ is mov­ing around re­gions and cross­ing bor­ders in our food and other prod­ucts

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Nick Walker ex­port

A mas­sive amount of ‘vir­tual wa­ter’ is mov­ing around Canada’s re­gions and cross­ing bor­ders in our food

CCli­mate change, pop­u­la­tion growth and big in­dus­try. When you think about how these and other forces are re­shap­ing the wa­ter needs of na­tions around the globe, you prob­a­bly don’t pic­ture a ham­burger to help make sense of the is­sue. You’re more likely, per­haps, to imag­ine a fu­ture in which Canada and other wa­ter-wealthy coun­tries sup­ply wa­ter-scarce re­gions with fresh wa­ter by pipe­line and tanker. Af­ter all, Canada has nearly seven per cent of the world’s re­new­able fresh wa­ter and less than half of one per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion — more re­new­able wa­ter per per­son than any other coun­try. But the ham­burger here rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent kind of mass wa­ter con­sump­tion al­ready un­der­way: the bil­lions of cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter be­ing taken out of nu­mer­ous wa­ter­sheds, poured into agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial pro­cesses and prod­ucts that are then moved around Canada or shipped off to other parts of the world. This is the far-rang­ing fate of “vir­tual wa­ter,” which refers to ev­ery drop con­sumed or pol­luted dur­ing grow­ing, rais­ing or man­u­fac­tur­ing — be it a beef cow, a head of let­tuce, a scoop of wheat or the fuel that pow­ers trans­port ve­hi­cles. There is no leg­is­la­tion to track or limit this kind of wa­ter con­sump­tion and dis­place­ment on mass in­dus­trial scales, and lit­tle is known about how much vir­tual wa­ter is be­ing moved be­tween wa­ter-scarce and wa­ter-rich re­gions of Canada, but the best es­ti­mates are that more than 95 bil­lion cu­bic me­tres (Bm3) of vir­tual wa­ter — most of it tied up in grain, live­stock and fuels — leaves Canada each year (roughly 60 per cent of it go­ing to the United States), while a lit­tle more than 35 Bm3 is im­ported in other prod­ucts. That works out to an an­nual net loss of about 60 Bm3, or as the en­vi­ron­men­tal non-profit The Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans frames it in their re­port Leaky Ex­ports: A por­trait of the vir­tual wa­ter trade in Canada, enough wa­ter to fill Toronto’s Rogers Cen­tre sta­dium to the top 37,500 times. Only Aus­tralia loses more wa­ter in this way. And al­though Leaky Ex­ports was pub­lished back in 2011, no study of Canada’s vir­tual wa­ter foot­print has been com­mis­sioned by a fed­eral gov­ern­ment to date. “We lack a com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing of how our fresh­wa­ter re­sources are be­ing used and how that im­pacts dif­fer­ent re­gions of our own coun­try,” says Tom Glee­son, a hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist with the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria. This is about know­ing how much vir­tual wa­ter we can af­ford to ex­port, he says, whether to the United States, China or Jor­dan, but also about how we should be dis­tribut­ing wa­ter-in­ten­sive pro­duc­tion be­tween Canada’s re­gions. Read on for more about the na­tional vir­tual wa­ter pic­ture, and to find out how a sin­gle item — in this case a cheese­burger — can have a big wa­ter im­pact. An im­por­tant part of Canada’s wa­ter fu­ture in­volves every­one, from var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment to in­di­vid­u­als, putting a value on this kind of wa­ter con­sump­tion. It may be “vir­tual,” but it’s no less real than the wa­ter in your tap.

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