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Focusing on Public Responses: What We Heard in Vancouver

In this post we focus on the reactions from the crowd who attended the National Discussion Series: Securing Our Water Future tour stop in Vancouver, hosted by ACT at Simon Fraser University’s Segal Room. Attendance was impressively diverse; participants ranged from young students to seniors, from academic and industry experts to community members with a strong personal interest in water, which seemed to illustrate water’s crucial importance to us all.

One participant raised the problem of the way the political spotlight on water ebbs and flows, which tends to undermine momentum in terms of action. She pointed out that everyone – especially in the BC context – cares about water and recognizes its importance, but at any given time, something else will come up and replace it in terms of political salience. Given this challenge, she asked, how can people become better informed? Panelist Jon O’Riordan, who is a former BC Deputy Minister of Sustainable Resource Management as well as ACT’s Biodiversity report author and senior policy adviser, remarked that to foster stronger public consciousness around this issue, we require intergenerational education and teaching. For example, Jon is developing an initiative that would see graduate students teach high school students, and high school students to teach elementary school students, about the importance of water and how it connects to our governance and ecological systems.

Another participant raised a question regarding the political framing of the Living Water Smart Plan in BC and its focus on adapting to water cycles. The participant asked how other jurisdictions, such as the EU, have been successful in their water policy reform efforts through the Water Framework Directive. Panellist Oliver Brandes, Co-Director and Water Sustainability Project Leader of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria noted that the high level of civic engagement evident in the EU, and its long history of dealing with water management challenges, are key ingredients to its success.

Bob then explained that we in Canada are just beginning to understand hydrological non-stationarity, whereas it was long ago recognized in the EU.

Bob’s statement about it being time for Canada to consider a national water policy inspired one participant to comment that the biggest challenge with proposing a national water policy is the complex cross-scale dynamics of water in Canada. If we wish to manage water at the watershed level, or regional level, how would a national water policy be universally applied? Even more challenging is that we have multiple jurisdictions in Canada that deal with water, an issue that the ACT Water report addresses.

In response, Bob brought attention back to the NWT strategy. In the NWT, the territorial government worked with the federal government and Aboriginal groups to establish the true value of water to the territory as expressed in traditional ecological knowledge and connectedness with the ecosystem and its needs. If we make an effort to understand our connection with water and the indispensable role it plays in our way of life, we may be able to begin to a more holistic conversation about how to frame a national vision for water governance in Canada despite jurisdictional fragmentation and competing interests.

Oliver agreed that scale matters, especially for decision-making when accounting for uncertainty. By thinking through our relationship with water at all levels, we can begin to address resiliency and figure out which governance approach is most suitable to manage water. Oliver also returned to the EU on this point, as it is comprised of many millions of people, multiple languages, cultures, and jurisdictions, yet they have been successful with their nested systems approach using river basins as the unit of water management which is supported by legislation. Bob argued that it may be worth considering a secretariat of state on water to develop this issue; Jon was practical in stating that there is no way to change the constitutionality of water management in Canada, but that there is a need to have a collaborative system to address these issues.

The Living Water Smart plan is a good first step but more discussion needs to be channelled to how we can make water a national priority. For instance, national water infrastructure is aging and associated risks are being exacerbated by climate change. As Bob noted, improving our infrastructure could reduce treatment costs and hence cut down on energy use, reduce water leakage thereby conserving water and saving money.

ACT Executive Director Deborah Harford, who hosted and moderated the event, concluded the session with key messages of hope and optimism. She noted that policy can work, but also that civic engagement can go a long way and urged the audience not to underestimate the power of writing letters to politicians and making their voices heard. The more information sharing, education, and collaborative action we encourage and initiate, the more likely we are to be able to reform our water policy in a way that is beneficial for all Canadians, both now and for future generations.

Robert W. Sandford, EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of United Nations “Water for Life” Decade, and author of ACT’s Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance reports, is touring Canada speaking about water governance policy. Tim Shah, ACT PICS Water intern is reporting on Robert’s progress in this blog.

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