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article imageWater the issue of the day at Walrus Talks in Toronto Special

By Michael Thomas     May 29, 2014 in Environment
Toronto - Water is the essence of life on this planet, and in the latest Walrus Talks event, a group of speakers spelled out the dire state of this natural resource — but not without a few words of hope.
The Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto was filled to near capacity Wednesday night for 80 minutes of talks on water from a wide range of speakers — not just scientists, but from writers, a waterkeeper, and even a filmmaker.
It's no secret that water, which covers two-thirds of the Earth and comprises 70 percent of the human body, is in grave danger from a variety of sources. However, despite the grim facts speakers like Sherri "Sam" Mason presented — did you know there are 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre in waters outside of Toronto? — there were some ideas for solutions.
Marq de Villiers, a Port Medway, Nova Scotia-based writer, really set the tone for the evening as the second speaker, relating the story of his travels in Northern Africa. He came upon a well, the only source of water for a great distance, and saw that it was contaminated by a dead camel, the body half in and half out. Despite the fact that it was making the water unsafe, no one moved the camel since no one knew who it belonged to.
This metaphor of the camel applies to the pollution of waterways worldwide. As de Villiers puts it, why can't we move the camel?
De Villiers followed the metaphor with several grim statistics: in China, half of its rivers have disappeared outright, and the Yellow River is so polluted that the water can't even be used for irrigation. Every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking contaminated water. Water tables are dropping in the Middle East at a rate of at least 1 metre per year.
Mark Mattson, a former environmental lawyer and a Lake Ontario waterkeeper, explained how several Canadian environmental acts have been gutted, like the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and how signs like "No swimming" and "No Fishing" essentially normalize water pollution.
John L. Riley of the Nature Conservancy of Canada outlined how Canada is in charge of the Great Lakes, the source of one-fifth of the world's fresh water, and we continue to push the water level back as more and more development in Toronto takes place.
However, there was some hope. Chris Wood, an author and reporter, talked about the "c-word" in relation to water — commodification. Because governments give away water essentially for free, we don't think about where the water comes from or how much of it is inaccessible, and businesses waste tons of it every day. He argued that adding a price to water, even quintupling what water currently costs, would not make it too expensive for the poor, and would not cripple businesses, as the argument goes.
Joe MacInnis, an explorer, physician and author, explained that anything can be done with strong leadership — he recounted a harrowing tale of a submarine he was in as it lost function 4,500 metres below sea level and managed to make it out alive.
The most fascinating of the seven-minute talks came from Rob Williams, a co-founder of the Ocean Initiative and a marine biologist. He explained about a different type of pollution less thought about — noise pollution. Whales communicate through unique calls, and the noise from large boats cuts off the calls completely. He said that simple solutions, like getting a ship to slow down, would cut noise drastically. Canada also has a number of ship-building contracts and could propose to build much quieter and environmentally friendly ships.
Another interesting perspective came from filmmaker Katarina Soukup, who explored "lost rivers," or rivers that were so polluted that they were paved over and merged with sewers.
Each presentation was brief but informative, and as is the Walrus' wont, gave the audience a lot to think about with an increasingly grim situation.
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