ImageA June 2023 article from the Yale University School of the Environment with the intriguing title “Beyond the Yuck Factor: Cities Turn to ‘Extreme’ Water Recycling” serves to remind that Canada is currently not in a leadership position when it comes to water quality, quantity, and conservation. We often abuse both our ground and our surface waters as if they were an infinite supply, failing to recognize that the water cycle has a limited capacity to renew our water resources and frequently forgetting that demand for even more scarce water resources in other parts of the world will sooner or later have an environmental, social, and economic impact on Canada.

All of this was highlighted in March at the 2023 United Nations Water Conference, held at the UN in New York City and more properly known as the United Nations Conference on the Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018‑2028). The Conference, which was attended by governmental, non-governmental and civil society stakeholders, developed dozens of key conclusions among them the following:

  • Government leadership and willingness to drive change is key.
  • Water has the capacity to unite and act as a driver of peace, sustainable development, climate action and regional integration. Water diplomacy is a key enabler for peace and water security.
  • Transboundary waters face significant and increasing pressures as a result of population increase, growing water demands, ecosystem degradation and climate change. Legal and institutional arrangements need to be established or enhanced to deal with growing competition over shared resources and prevent conflict.
  • Funding and financing from the public sector, private sector and donors must increase dramatically.
  • Resource efficiency and reuse must become the norm for all economic sectors, including improving agricultural water use efficiency, addressing sources of pollution, reduction of industrial waste water emissions, and water leakage and loss in urban areas.
  • Mobilizing investments in water‑smart technology and water‑risk resilient infrastructures, backed by a sustainable finance policy (e.g. through taxonomies and disclosure rules) and water pricing mechanisms with targeted social safeguards is essential.
  • Decoupling water consumption from economic development is crucial for sustainable development.
  • Water cooperation should involve water‑related sectors such as energy, agriculture, health, and environment.
  • Water and the global water cycle need to be protected collectively, and in the interests of all. The  global water cycle is now out of balance; the water crisis is interacting with the twin crises of climate change and the loss of biodiversity in ways that exacerbate all three.
  • Valuing water correctly, including pricing water closer to its true value while providing appropriate targeted subsidies, could help secure more efficient, equitable and sustainable use of water.
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The Complete Summary of Proceedings for the Conference can be found here. ‘The Yale University article gives some key examples of how far municipalities, developers and planners can and need to go in achieving the objectives of the UN Water Conference. Drawing on examples from the City of San Francisco and the US National Alliance for Water Innovation, a division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the article discusses recycling of water. In one example a newly constructed hotel has technology installed in its basement to recycle much of the building’s grey water from sinks, showers, and laundry,  The system will clean the water with membrane filtration, ultraviolet light, and chlorine, and then send it back to the hotel’s non-potable water distribution system to be used again for non-potable uses. This circular system will recycle the building’s water essentially for ever.

In 2015, San Francisco passed regulations requiring all new buildings of more than 100,000 square feet to have on‑site water recycling systems. The idea is to equip new commercial and residential buildings as well as districts, such as neighborhoods and universities, with onsite recycling plants that will make water for non-potable use cheaper than buying potable water from a centralized source.

Canada was once a world leader in this type of water recycling technology, at least until a major multinational corporation, General Electric, in 2006 purchased the Canadian leader, Zenon Environmental, and initiated a path by which some of the world’s leading water recycling technology eventually became the property of a French transnational company.

Our governments need to recognize that making Canada once again a leader in water and other environmental technology is not just a matter of handing out grants to companies but also means establishing a business environment in which Canadian world-class environmental technologies are being demonstrated at every available opportunity in our own country.

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The Yale University article about water recycling technology can be found here.


Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.


Featured image credit: Unsplash/Luis Tosta



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