07/03/2013 08:04 EDT | Updated 09/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Are We Headed for a National Water Crisis?

A Muskoka chair is silhouetted on a dock, surrounded by cool lake waters shimmering with the reflected setting sun. The image is quintessentially Canadian.

Thousands of us undoubtedly spent this Canada Day weekend playing in or simply lounging by our abundant oceans, lakes and rivers, while thousands more enjoyed their own backyard swimming pools. Water is part of our national identity. Canada contains as much as 20 per cent of the entire world's fresh water supply. It's our birthright and our national treasure.

But we might not be as rich as we think.

A few weeks ago we joined more than 600 people in planting gardens that will help protect the Don River as part of RBC's Blue Water Day in Toronto. As we exercised our green thumbs, working alongside us was Alexandra Cousteau, who knows a thing or two about water. The granddaughter of legendary oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau told us that Canada is blessed with water resources, but we're headed for a water crisis because we're not taking care of our inheritance.

Cousteau went on her first ocean expedition when she was four months old, and did her first scuba dive at age seven. Over the past several years, with her organization Blue Legacy, she has chronicled water issues around the world from the Ganges River in India to Canada's waterways.

Cousteau first visited Canada in 2010 after filming the changes that have happened to the Colorado River in the U.S., which no longer reaches the sea. Because of human water use and diversions, the mouth of the Colorado has dried up -- a lush watershed turned desert. After that experience, Cousteau said that Toronto, with its vast lakefront, felt like an oasis.

Her first impression quickly washed away. Exploring Toronto, Cousteau learned residents ignore Lake Ontario because they think it's too polluted to swim in; she found an aging sewage system dumping waste into that lake; she found the mouth of the Don River choked with garbage; and local environmental organizations like Evergreen Brick Works took her to former creeks and streams that developers had turned into sewers or buried beneath asphalt and concrete.

And Toronto is by no means alone in its water issues. Cousteau said the sewage infrastructure across Canada is inadequate to deal with our water use. We dump an estimated 200 billion litres of raw sewage into our waterways every year. She cited an Environment Canada statistic that health problems related to water pollution cost our health care system more than $300 million every year. More than 100 Aboriginal communities face contaminated water problems and even Montreal -- a city framed by the mighty St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers -- spent several days this spring under a boil water advisory after a problem at a water filtration plant caused murky water to pour from Montreal taps.

And if water use were an Olympic sport, Canadians would be silver medal winners, behind only the U.S. With our love of long showers and well-watered lawns, the average Canadian uses 329 litres of water each day -- more than twice as much as the average European.

Another water expert we spoke with, Robert Sandford, chair of Canadian Partnership Initiative of the U.N. Water for Life initiative, said Canadian cities have created oversized, energy-gobbling water and sewage infrastructure to support our extravagant usage. He said Canada faces an $88 billion water infrastructure deficit -- the money needed to restore aging and ailing water and sewage systems.

Sandford argued the massive amount of water we remove from our natural water systems every year has fundamentally changed how those systems function -- from water flow to precipitation patterns. These changes, plus the energy demand of man-made water infrastructure, alter the climate. Climate change, Sandford said, results in more severe weather events storms and floods which further burdens our strained water infrastructure, creating a vicious cycle.

"I hope you can learn to be good stewards in Canada before the tap runs dry," Cousteau sighed.

Yet there is hope. Over the past nine months, young Canadians collected more than 140 million pennies to bring clean water to communities overseas, and many of them have been part of the H2O 4U speaking tour to educate young Canadians about water conservation.

Cousteau complemented Canadians for our network of grassroots organizations working to protect local water resources. She said that nowhere else in the world has she seen such citizen involvement.

So as you celebrate our nation's birthday, also honour our greatest wealth -- our water. Contact your local water conservation group to learn where your water comes from and what you can do to protect it.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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