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Canada second only to U.S. in water consumption

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Canadians are the world's second biggest consumers of water, Statistics Canada reports, and that insatiable thirst may be threatening the country's fresh water resources.

Statistics Canada says the most recent statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development show that in 1999, each Canadian on average used 1,471 cubic metres of water.

That's the same amount that floods over the crest of Niagara Falls every second -- or how much water would flow from the average household tap if it were left running for almost three months straight.

"Among OECD member countries, Canada was second only to the United States, where each American used 1,870 cubic metres," the Statistics Canada report said.

The agency warns that, as a result, Canada's famous freshwater resources are under threat.

Since 1850, some 1,300 glaciers have lost between 25 per cent and 75 per cent of their mass -- most of which disappeared in the last 50 years. Along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains where glacier cover is receding rapidly, for example, the ice has shrunk to its lowest level in 10,000 years.

And on the St. Lawrence Seaway, low water levels are affecting ships' navigation.

As for the water that's left, the report warns that it is increasingly polluted -- despite the $3 billion Canadian industry spent on environmental protection in 2000.

Environmental Defence Canada's Sarah Winterton says the state of the nation's drinking water is cause for concern.

"We're seeing problems all across Canada in terms of e.coli, other microorganisms, many communities are dealing with boil water orders, they can't drink the water out of the taps and people should be concerned." Her worry is confirmed in the report, which points to the number of communities that have issued boil-water orders.

"Agricultural run-off has contaminated drinking water supplies, as in the case of Walkerton, Ont., and industries discharge hundreds of different substances into rivers and lakes daily," it said.

"In 2001, more than 2,600 industrial facilities reported chemical discharges to water bodies."

Combined, those factors may explain Canadians' love of bottled water, Statistics Canada says.

"In 1995, each Canadian consumed 17.9 litres of bottled water. Five years later, that number had jumped to 27.6 litres."

When the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association dove into the issue in 1997, it estimated that more than $80 billion would be needed to modernize Canada's water treatment plants by 2012.

So far, governments at all levels have spent less than $3 billion of that -- meaning that until the next prime minister opens the taps on spending, Canadians worried about the safety of their water will continue to reach for the bottled stuff.

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