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Baltutis and Sandford: Canadians are thirsty for a national water strategy

Published in the Calgary Herald, Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Published in The Toronto Star, Saturday July 28, 2012
Written by Jesse Baltutis and Bob Sandford

In the future, prosperous nations will be those with enough water for food, cities, industry and nature — and know how to ensure each gets the amount it needs. But Canada’s prosperity is at risk because our water is increasingly at risk. Indeed, there is a growing awareness that the way we currently manage our freshwater resources poses significant challenges to our ability to ensure the future environmental well-being and economic prosperity of our country.

Jurisdictions across Canada face water-related concerns. Alberta, with its vast oilsands, currently has the most vigorous economy. Yet, the consequences of extracting the heavy crude are being felt downriver in the Northwest Territories. Collaboration, communication and engagement between the governments of Alberta and the N.W.T., communities and First Nations is critical to developing a comprehensive action plan for how best to safeguard water quality and quantity within the Athabasca River, and consequently, the larger Mackenzie River Basin.

Overarching national concerns include critical supply and quality challenges related to a changing climate and increasing population pressures, accompanied by a growing concern for our watersheds, which are vital for sustainable and prosperous communities.

Despite these threats, many Canadians believe in the myth of limitless water. We are among the world’s most prolific users — and abusers — of water. According to Environment Canada, over the 10-year period from 1996 to 2006, our collective water withdrawals increased by 13 per cent. Even more alarming is the rate of withdrawal between 1972 and 2006 — a whopping 112.5 per cent increase.

Yet water is so deeply woven into the very fabric of what it means to be Canadian, that in a 2012 RBC water attitudes poll, Canadians overwhelmingly agreed that it is our most valuable natural resource.

Canada needs a national water strategy. This was the message Canadians delivered during the Forum for Leadership on Water’s cross-Canada discussion tour held last fall. Water expert and forum co-chair Bob Sandford — one of the authors of this opinion piece — visited 16 cities to share lessons learned from the Northwest Territories Water Stewardship Strategy. Sandford talked with Canadians about how the innovative N.W.T. strategy could serve as a model for water policy reform in the rest of Canada, and at the same time, was struck by the critical water challenges that already exist across southern Canada as a result of changes in climate and intensifying demands on freshwater resources.

One need only look to the floods and droughts experienced in Manitoba in 2011, which caused almost $1 billion in damages, to recognize the scale of the challenges we are facing. Regardless of whether we are on the “wet” coast of British Columbia, the vast expanse of the N.W.T.’s arctic tundra, or the burgeoning technology centres of southern Ontario, we must rethink our approach to managing water. Pan-Canadian water challenges demand and deserve a comprehensive response.

The recently released report, Cross-Canada Checkup: A Canadian Perspective on Our Water Future, captures the essence of what Sandford heard from panellists and audience members during the tour.

The report, co-authored and published by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria and the Adaptation to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University, illustrates that concerned Canadians are increasingly aware of the need for a national strategy, especially because water management decisions based on historical climate trends are no longer sufficient to address the challenges surrounding future water management.

The national tour confirmed what many in the water policy community already know: lawmakers need a more fundamental analysis of how we use our water supplies, why we make certain choices to use water in the ways we do, how we will plan for the future, and what our governance structures will need to look like.

Alberta is at a significant bend in the proverbial river. The province faces an absence of leadership on water — a hindrance to effectively addressing current and future water challenges. We cannot afford to wait for a crisis to prompt action, which will involve overcoming entrenched and misguided beliefs on the limitless availability of clean, fresh water.

To meet current and emerging water challenges in Alberta, it is essential to establish the building blocks of effective water management policies, such as water metering and a modernized water licensing system, so that water is available where and when it is needed.

More than any other issue in Canada, water has the power to unite Canadians, transcending differences in political philosophy, ethnicity, or geographical location. We all share the most basic of needs: clean water for our families and communities. To provide for this, it is critical to have healthy ecological systems that function within responsibly managed watersheds. Our natural environment has been left to us in trust for future generations, who will likely be faced with far greater environmental challenges and increasing economic and social uncertainty.

By clearly identifying government’s role — and crucially, enabling community and citizen engagement — Canada will signal that it is serious about tackling those threats and challenges to our water resources that we so often associate with tomorrow, yet have started to rear their head today.

Bob Sandford is EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative of the UN Water for Life Decade, director of the Western Watersheds Climate Research Collaborative, and co-chair of the Forum for Leadership On Water (FLOW).

Jesse Baltutis is the Water Policy and Governance Research Assistant with the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.

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