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Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources

by Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood

Except for hundreds of First Nations communities perpetually suffering under boil-water alerts, it’s doubtful most Canadians know much about the source and safety of their tap water. That will change if they read Down the Drain, a well-documented and accessible overview of the nation’s liquid assets.

Arguing that water must be considered part of Canada’s “natural security,” Ralph Pentland (a veteran water policy consultant) and Chris Wood (a prolific writer on social issues) pull no punches in their stark assessment of Canada’s history of ecological abuse, government inaction, and wilful ignorance. The damning nature of their critique is clear: there are, on average, 1,500 water advisories in force daily, and a national epidemic of gastrointestinal illness caused by unsafe water results in 200,000 emergency room visits and 90 deaths annually.

Pentland and Wood concede we’re paddling upstream when it comes to addressing the devastating toll of climate change, the toxic slew of waterborne carcinogens for which treatment facilities are ill-equipped, genetic changes resulting from pharmaceuticals in the water supply, and the daily loss of millions of litres of water rendered undrinkable through industrial use. Down the Drain convincingly argues that weak enforcement of a patchwork of safety standards, scientists being laid off or muzzled, and funding cuts all point to a government that’s failing in its legal duty to protect the health of its citizens.

The authors also provide basic proposals that, if adhered to, could make a significant difference, looking both to Europe and, interestingly, the U.S. for precedents that would impact Canadians minimally while reducing our GED (“gross external damages”). Their grasp of science, history, economics, and the law makes for a fully developed picture that, despite its occasionally depressing nature, leaves readers with the feeling that a return to responsible stewardship could still be in our future.