Analysis - September 10, 2008



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September 2008


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Tourism-related freshwater issues in Québec

Water has become one of the scarcest resources as its consumption has increased sixfold in the last century. At the present time, over 40% of the world’s population lives in water poverty (1-4). In Québec, water quality and resource ownership are of greater concern than water availability since many lakes have suffered from algal outbreaks associated with eutrophication (5). Eutrophication is a transformative process affecting water quality, which results in a water body reaching a nutrient-enriched state (5, 6). Natural processes related to the ageing of lakes can cause eutrophication because the decomposition of organisms in the water consumes available oxygen. This contributes to nutrient enrichment, but eutrophication can also be caused by pollution from human activity (7).

In any situation, eutrophication is influenced by the natural characteristics of a lake, as well as by the land uses around its watershed (8, 9). One result of eutrophication can be the excessive growth of phytoplankton and algae, as well as changes in species abundance and composition, biomass production and dissolved oxygen content. Once a lake becomes eutrophic, it can trigger the rapid growth of certain harmful algae types such as blue-green algae or cyanobacteria (10, 11). These algae are the most commonly known harmful algae in freshwater bodies. In Europe and North America, agricultural sources are generally the primary contributors to eutrophication, followed by sewage and industrial run-off (10, 12). Tourism and recreation can also contribute to eutrophication because the sector uses water and produces waste that often contains harmful chemicals (13).

Tourism and water

The average global tourist uses anywhere from 100 to 2000 litres per day (7), a figure that is several times higher than that of the average residential user. This is directly linked to the operation of tourism facilities, as well as use by visitors for regular activities such showers, swimming in pools, and so on. Water use is high for some activities in particular, such as when ski resorts produce artificial snow.

Tourism-related water consumption is also associated with chemical use, like synthetic fertilizers to maintain green spaces as well as detergents and soaps, all of which can be a significant source of pollution. Furthermore, besides their damaging physical impacts, water-based motorized activities also introduce various hydrocarbon compounds from fuels and anti-fouling paints (14). In Québec, for example, 307 golf courses contribute approximately 40 000 kilograms of active ingredients to ecosystems through fungicides, herbicides and insecticides (15). Sewage outflow from diffuse small-scale tourism and recreation facilities, especially around outfitter camps and resorts, can be a particularly significant source of bacteria and algae in freshwater systems in remote areas (16), although their contribution has not been quantified in Québec. Septic tanks around secondary homes lose up to 25% of their waste, which can seep into the soil and groundwater and, depending on the location, eventually enter a lake (5).

According to sustainable development objectives, the tourism sector needs to use water resources more efficiently and avoid the use of harmful substances that affect its quality (17). In turn, water resource availability and quality also affects tourism but few studies have provided any details quantifying how and where. In Florida, a study showed that algal blooms in coastal waters resulted in net reductions of 29% and 35% for the restaurant and lodging sectors respectively (18). The total net economic effect of diminished lake water quality in Québec has not yet been calculated.

Some solutions

Restoring a water environment is expensive and complex but several mitigation options exist. There are several examples of successful restoration projects in Québec involving collaborative work between the tourism industry, government and non-government organizations (19). Some of these projects have included riparian vegetation planting and the development of recreation activities and infrastructures around lakes. Other management actions, such as planting aquatic species to increase natural filtering mechanisms, may also be pertinent in some lakes because they enable the water to absorb additional nutrient loads (2).

One of the most effective ways is to prevent pollution, and this can be achieved by raising awareness via education. Various organizations recommend more efficient use of water and the elimination of toxic substances. Awareness programs in Québec such as the Charte des lacs (20) remain important tools. Regulation can also be effective. For example, the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides is regulated, although various land uses are affected differently. Since 2006, it is against the law to use pesticides on public lawns and green spaces, including semi-public areas and places managed by municipalities (6). Consequently, specific users in the tourism sector such as golf courses are now required to submit plans by 2009 for reducing their use of pesticides by an average 12.9%, fungicides by 9.4%, herbicides by 8.2% and insecticides by 7.4%. There do not appear to be any restrictions imposed on other sectors in tourism.

Time for action

The competition for freshwater resources will likely intensify in the future and climate change will also affect lakes in Canada (21). Some tourism businesses have reduced water use and/or switched from using toxic substances in their operations and replaced polluting products with biodegradable alternatives. However, the extent of change across the whole sector has not been determined. Currently in Québec, it is unclear how either tourism or recreational activities contribute to water quality problems compared to other land uses. It is also not clear how much lakes contribute to the economics of tourism in different regions. It is thus important to understand the relationship between water resources and tourism so that problem mitigation may involve all relevant industry stakeholders.


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4.    World Resources Institute (2008), Water Resources and Freshwater Ecosystems []. Last accessed May 2, 2008.
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15.    Lavardière, C, S. Dion, and S. Gauthier (2007), Bilan des plans des réductions des pesticides sur les terrains de golf au Québec, Rapport réalisé pour le ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs, Gouvernement du Québec.
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17.    United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics, Sustainable Consumption & Production Branch : Resource Efficiency []. Last accessed May 2, 2008.
18.    Hoagland, P., D.M. Anderson, Y. Kaoru, and A.W. White (2002), “The Economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States: Estimates, Assessment Issues and Information Needs,” Estuaries, vol. 25, no. 4, p. 819-837.
19.    Tourisme Québec (2000), Guide de mise en valeur des plans d’eau du Québec à des fins récréotouristiques et de conservation du patrimoine, Groupe DBSF for Tourisme Québec.
20.    Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs (MDDEP) (2008b), Charte des lacs []. Last accessed May 2, 2008.
21.    Jones, B.E., D. Scott, and S. Gössling (2006), “Lakes and Streams,” in S. Gössling and C.M. Hall (eds.), Tourism and Global Environmental Change: Ecological, Social, Economic, and Political Interrelationships, Routledge, London, p. 67-94.


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