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Water Governance and Leadership Both Needed For Water Policy Reform: An update from Vancouver

“The trouble with water – and there is trouble with water – is that they aren’t making any more of it” ~ Marq de Villiers

We present the Vancouver water tour experience in two parts: The first, today’s blog, covers a summary of the presentations; the second (tomorrow) will discuss what the public concerns and questions raised by participants.

Bob Sandford’s November 8th National Discussion Series: Securing Our Water Future presentation in Vancouver was complemented by thought-provoking responses from two leading regional water experts, Oliver Brandes of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, and Jon O’Riordan (ACT Biodiversity author and former BC Deputy Minister of Sustainable Resource Management).

Bob’s presentation noted that the Northwest Territories (NWT) Water Strategy is a “precedent-setting document both nationally and internationally” with a high degree of transparency and accountability. An important element in the strategy’s success is the fact that Aboriginal involvement in the strategy was strong and sustained from the beginning, and the fact that it uses an ecosystem-based approach to watershed governance. More information about the strategy can be found online or in the ACT Water report.

Among Bob’s concluding remarks, he mentioned that leadership, as evidenced by the NWT experience, is critical for effective water policy reform. Michael Miltenberger, Deputy Premier of the NWT, was instrumental in leading NWT in their water strategy process. We are not currently seeing much standout political leadership on water in other parts of Canada bar Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty, and his commendable commitment to water policy reform.

Improving water management can lead to multiple benefits including energy savings, saved water and ameliorating water infrastructure that is currently overbuilt and aging, that have the potential to drive voter interest in upcoming elections. Bob asked the audience, “What kind of leadership can we cultivate in the Canadian south to actually achieve water policy reform?”

Oliver’s presentation focused on good governance, noting that we need to move from government to governance as we shape our water management practices. This means collaboration with stakeholders and those impacted by the decisions; it also means using the watershed as the basis for management, and embedding conflict avoidance and dispute resolution into the process.

Oliver described water as a strategic asset, and posited that we will likely see more significant changes in water governance in the next 10 years than we have seen in the past 100 years. He asked the audience how many of them had heard of the provincial Living Water Smart Plan. Only a few raised their hands, which is ironic given that Oliver went on to quote a 2011 McAllister poll in which 98% of British Columbians rated fresh water as their most important resource. Despite this, it appears that BC residents are generally not well informed about provincial water policy, as evidenced by the audience’s lack of awareness of the Living Water Smart Plan.

Jon O’Riordan’s presentation explored the importance of “engineering ecology” when designing water and waste disposal infrastructure such as the district heating system in South False Creek and addressing cumulative impacts in our water systems to protect the value ecosystem components bring to watersheds. Water management is all about re-thinking our connection with ecosystems that need critical environmental flows specifically to sustain nature, which in turn sustains us.

In summary, all three presenters’ insightful remarks helped the audience better understand where our province and the rest of the country stand on the critical issue of Securing Our Water Future, and offered an opportunity to discuss potential solutions with a highly diverse and engaged audience. It became clear that the completion of BC’s Water Act Modernization (WAM) process in 2013 will represent not only an enormous step forward in the province, but an excellent example for the rest of the country as well.

The next blog post will focus on comments, feedback, and reactions from the Vancouver audience.

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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