Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
“It’s a very precious resource, and it shouldn’t be mismanaged.”
Representing one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, Canada’s rivers, lakes, and streams are often held up as one of its greatest assets—especially as climate change dries out other regions around the world. That’s why a recurring debate over whether the country should export its water has recently resurfaced.
In mid-January, reporter Chris Wood argued in support of the idea from a conservationist’s perspective in Corporate Knights:
In our refusal to countenance selling water, Canadians have sacrificed the best means to calculate its economic value (the verboten “putting a price on the priceless”), and thereby denied ourselves the best motive and means for being careful how we use it.
Against the notion, a Stratfor analyst wrote last June that there’s no chance Canada will ever divert bulk supplies to water-stressed areas, à la oil or coal:
Economic realities will prevent it. Even if water were priced to market demand, public sentiment would still make such transfers unlikely.
It’s no wonder that architect, artist, and designer Joy Charbonneau struck a nerve when her hydrological map of Canada was published by the Globe and Mail in December. Water, and water only, etches and delineates the landscape in this stunning, woodcut-like visual.
Charbonneau originally created the map in 2011, using public data from Natural Resources Canada that show every brook, lake, canal, and stream in the country. She stripped away all other geographic features and enhanced the width of the lines representing water in order to emphasize the interconnected nature of the country’s hydrology.
“It’s like capillaries or veins,” she tells CityLab. “If something happens upstream, it happens downstream, and downstream from that.”
After a torrent of comments on the Globe and Mail feature, Charbonneau updated the map to include even more tributaries and rivulets that the dataset had apparently missed.
Was the map created in response to the debate over exports, or some other hydro-political issue? Not exactly; it’s more a reflection of her fascination with natural patterns and landscape. But Charbonneau does say that the attention her map has received is worrying for one reason.
“It shows off the abundance of water here—‘Oh my god, there’s so much of it,’” she says. “But it’s a very precious resource, and it shouldn’t be mismanaged.”