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SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation

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The environmental perspective

While Canada has about 20% of the planet's freshwater resources, with the Great Lakes as one of the largest systems of fresh surface water in the world, and 7% of the world's renewable fresh water, ensuring the country has clean and safe water remains an important issue. This chapter's focus directly supports SDG Global Indicator Framework targets 6.1: By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all; 6.3: By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally; and 6.5: By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.

In Canada, lakes and rivers supply drinking water to millions of Canadians and sustain a rich variety of plants and animals. These waters also provide opportunities for swimming, boating, and recreational fishing and support economic activities such as tourism, commercial fisheries, agriculture, shipping, manufacturing, and energy production. Groundwater also provides drinking water to Canadians, sustains stream and river base flow during dry periods, and supports ecological services.

Canada's waters are an irreplaceable natural heritage that Canadians should use sustainably and be able to access equitably. Sustainably using Canada's water resources means ensuring that all Canadians have access to clean, safe and healthy drinking water, as well as to the other ecosystem services that healthy waters provide. It also means ensuring that effective wastewater systems are in place that achieve high standards with low operating risks so that sanitation systems across Canada protect the health and well-being of Canadians and ecosystems.

Many lakes and rivers are affected by water pollution and contamination. For example, 150 billion litres of untreated and undertreated wastewater (sewage) is released into Canadian waterways every year. Urban and agricultural run-off and undertreated wastewater have caused excessive nutrient levels in some lakes, streams, and rivers, leading to algal blooms and zones of low oxygen, thereby impacting the water sources Canadian communities rely on and eroding access to safe water for swimming and recreation. Agricultural actions related to sustainable water management are addressed in chapter 2.

The Government of Canada works with provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, academics and stakeholders to reduce water pollution and ensure ecosystem health—for example, by reducing phosphorus loading to Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg.

Canada and the United States have a long history of effective cooperation in managing their shared waters. More than 40% of the Canada-U.S. border is water. In addition, more than 300 rivers and lakes (some of the largest in the world) lie along, or flow across, the border between Canada and the United States. Both countries rely on boundary and transboundary waters as a source of drinking water, as well as to support farming, tourism and recreation, economic growth and clean energy production.

Where the Government of Canada is going

Mandate letters released in December 2021 outline the Government of Canada's direction and policy priorities. Selected commitments related to Sustainable Development Goal 6 are listed below.

  • Establish a Canada Water Agency and implement a strengthened Freshwater Action Plan, including a historic investment to provide funding to protect and restore large lakes and river systems, starting with the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River System, Lake Simcoe, the Lake Winnipeg Basin, the Fraser River Basin and the Mackenzie River Basin. Invest in the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario to support international freshwater science and research (Minister of Environment and Climate Change; supported by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food).
  • Following the establishment of a Canada Water Agency, advance the modernization of the Canada Water Act to reflect Canada's freshwater reality, including climate change and Indigenous rights (Minister of Environment and Climate Change).

How the Government of Canada contributes

Freshwater management in Canada is a responsibility shared between federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments. The Government of Canada is involved in areas such as fisheries, pollution prevention, shipping and navigation, international relations, transboundary waters, and creating and managing protected areas. The federal government is also responsible for managing fresh water on federal lands, and plays a leadership role in science and research on drinking water by developing the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality in partnership with the provinces and territories.

The Canada Water Act provides a framework for collaboration among federal, provincial, and territorial governments in matters related to water resources. Each level of government has a different role and there are many areas of shared responsibility. Joint projects involve regulating, dividing up, monitoring, and/or surveying water resources, as well as planning and implementing programs related to conserving, developing, and using water resources.

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 is the basis for collaborative management of Canada-U.S. boundary and transboundary waters. Environment and Climate Change Canada contributes to managing boundary and transboundary water through the International Joint Commission, created under the Boundary Waters Treaty. Canada is also a signatory to a number of other international agreements with the U.S. to manage boundary and transboundary waters including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Columbia River Treaty, among others. This work includes actions to restore and protect Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, as well as the 2016 commitment to reduce annual phosphorous loadings into Lake Erie by 40% from 2008 levels.

Bilateral and domestic action to restore and protect the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes Basin is home to 1 in 3 Canadians and 1 in 10 Americans. It provides significant environmental and economic benefits to both countries. The governments of Canada and the United States recognize the integral relationship between an environmentally healthy Great Lakes system and the social and economic well-being of both countries, as well as the direct connection between water quality and human health.

For 50 years, the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) has provided a binational framework for pursuing cooperative binational and domestic actions to restore and protect the water quality of the Great Lakes. Environment and Climate Change Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency lead the implementation of the GLWQA in cooperation with other federal government agencies, state and provincial governments, Tribal governments, First Nations, Métis, municipal governments, watershed management agencies, and other local public agencies.

The Government of Canada is working in partnership with the Government of Ontario to address Great Lakes issues and deliver on GLWQA commitments through the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (2021 to 2026). In addition, it is working with the province and other partners on the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan, which outlines over 120 actions to reduce phosphorus levels in Lake Erie in 5 key areas: reducing phosphorus loadings; ensuring effective policies, programs and legislation; improving the knowledge base; educating and building awareness; and strengthening leadership and coordination.

The Government of Canada also has agreements with provinces to work collaboratively on water issues such as the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011 to 2026 (St. Lawrence Action Plan), the 2021 Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, and the Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin (2021 to 2026).

Indigenous peoples have freshwater-related rights under many historic and modern treaties and self-government agreements. They are also involved in transboundary freshwater management, including through some water management boards.

Collaborating to improve the health of Lake Winnipeg

Lake Winnipeg is the sixth-largest freshwater lake in Canada, providing important social and economic benefits to Manitobans and to nearby Indigenous communities. Excessive nutrient loading and climate change have led to high phosphorus levels in the lake, which can result in harmful algal blooms and excessive plant growth that reduces the availability of oxygen. Reducing phosphorus loads in Lake Winnipeg is important to maintaining its water quality and ecological health.

The Government of Canada is working with the Government of Manitoba to address these challenges through the Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin, which was first signed in 2010 and renewed in 2021. The Government of Canada is also promoting recovery of the lake through the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program, which provides targeted funding for activities such as building retention ponds to intercept water flow and capture nutrients, stabilizing riverbanks and lake shorelines, restoring wetlands, and implementing livestock management practices.

Provinces and territories have responsibility over areas of water management and protection within their borders, including water allocation and use, drinking water and wastewater services, source water protection, and thermal and hydroelectric power development. Most delegate some authority to municipalities, and, in certain cases, local conservation authorities develop and deliver watershed-based resource management programs on behalf of provinces and municipalities.

Health Canada works with provincial and territorial governments to develop guidelines that set out the maximum acceptable concentrations of specific contaminants in drinking water. These guidelines are designed to protect the health of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children and the elderly. They set out the basic parameters that every water system should strive to achieve in order to provide the cleanest, safest and most reliable drinking water possible. All provinces and territories use the guidelines as the basis for their regulations and requirements for drinking water quality and safety, ensuring that Canadians benefit from evidence-based decisions on Canadian fresh water.

Through the Green Infrastructure stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, Infrastructure Canada is upgrading wastewater treatment or collection infrastructure, upgrading drinking water treatment and distribution infrastructure and increasing capacity to reduce and address soil and air pollutants. Investments under other infrastructure legacy programs and the Canada Community-Building Fund are also contributing to these priorities.

Federal regulations developed under the Fisheries Act help to protect the ecosystem health of Canada's waters by managing impacts to fish and fish habitat, and to the use of fish by humans. The Metal and Diamond Mining Effluent Regulationsgovern the discharge of mining effluent into water frequented by fish and improve the monitoring of environmental effects, while the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations govern the discharge of harmful substances from pulp and paper mills into water frequented by fish. The Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, also established under the Fisheries Act, include mandatory minimum effluent quality standards that can be reached through secondary wastewater treatment, and specify requirements for monitoring, record-keeping, reporting and toxicity testing.

Transboundary Action Plan for the Salish Sea ecosystem

Environment and Climate Change Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently signed a new 4-year Action Plan under their Joint Statement of Cooperation—first signed in 2000—that commits both countries to work together on transboundary issues and challenges facing the Salish Sea ecosystem. Under the Action Plan, the Government of Canada is engaging with partners across the region to advance shared priorities for ecosystem health, including information sharing, improving transboundary coordination, and jointly reporting on transboundary ecosystem health.

Recognizing the importance of clean drinking water for all Canadians and that access remains an issue in First Nations communities on reserve, the draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy includes a target, indicator, and action on this issue in Chapter 10: Take action on environmental inequalities and collaborate on environmental and natural resource management.

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2022-2026 FSDS

Draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2022-2026