Even though water is essential for every aspect of human life — from daily living to the economy —Robert Haller says it falls victim to the fact that it is part of our hidden infrastructure.

The Executive Director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) says that people notice flaws in transit infrastructure when they’re stuck in traffic or on the subway, but they don’t when they turn on their water tap. “The normal consumer does not notice any of the investment made,” he says. “That’s the hardest part. We put billions of dollars in it and they turn on the tap the same as they did yesterday.”

Catching up to today’s needs

A 2015 study by the CWWA said that only one in 10 Canadians thinks water treatment, water delivery, and storm water systems in their community require major investment. But that’s not the case.

Across Canada, water systems require billions of dollars in upgrades. The last major investments in Canadian water infrastructure occurred 50 to 100 years ago, or longer. A mix of deferred maintenance and replacement of infrastructure, a lack of needed planning, and a funding gap between what is needed and what is actually spent means there’s important catching up to do.

In communities where advancements have been made, Haller says results are already being seen. For instance, he points to Toronto where in the past, flooding led to the shutdown of parts of the transit system. “That did not happen during a recent, similar flood,” he says. “They had equal rainfall but it didn’t happen because of the new systems they’ve implemented with their 10-year, billion dollar upgrade plan.”

He also identifies Vancouver and Victoria as having improved their infrastructure which ensures the function of their water systems while helping to protect the local environment.

The cost of doing nothing

Haller says there is a lot of legislation designed to help improve water infrastructure in Canada. This includes moving Canadian communities to a secondary level of wastewater treatment as well as implementing new guidelines around flood risk and making continued improvements to drinking water guidelines.

The focus is not only on the end user, but to reduce the overall energy used in the process to get it to them and to protect the environment with stronger wastewater management. But the main challenge isn’t policy — it’s the cost and the competing interest for public funds with other infrastructure needs.

“The cost is beyond what a lot of people realize,” Haller says. But similarly, he adds, there’s a cost to doing nothing. Inaction is the same as taking risks and the consequences can be huge. Delayed improvements can include additional costs, unplanned losses, and an increase in watermain breaks or other risks. “Failure of water infrastructure costs five to 10 times more than making the needed improvements,” he says.

Water needs to be made a priority not only by politicians making the decisions but by citizens who aren’t aware of the state of Canada’s water infrastructure. “If we don’t address this we’re in trouble,” Haller says. “That’s the only time people will appreciate the investment —if we don’t make it.”