Risky Attitudes Toward Water

OpenCanada asked Bernadette Connant about water risk management and how we can better leverage our competitive advantage in water.
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March 22, 2013
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Canada’s relatively abundant water resources are the envy of many other countries. But having a lot of water brings its own challenges, including how to encourage users to manage water resources sustainably. OpenCanada spoke to Bernadette Conant, Executive Director of the Canadian Water Network (CWN) about water risk management, and how this can help Canada better leverage its global competitive advantage in water.

Tell us about the Canadian Water Network.

The mandate of our federally-supported program is to connect the research being done on water-related issues in Canada to those who can use that research. We work to ensure that research is shared across disciplines and across regions, and that it is brought forward to end-user communities in the public and private sectors. From forestry to health, water matters to every industry. The CWN started in 2001 by networking university researchers across the country and then evolved to connect those researches to end-users, bringing these groups together so that they can find out where their shared needs and priorities lie. End-users need to communicate their needs and present them to the research community and vice versa so that we can continue to make progress in addressing water-related challenges.

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What are the greatest water-related risks currently facing the global community?

In the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Report, the water supply crisis was identified as the fourth most serious risk. This is the first time that water related issues have been identified as a top risk which shows that water issues, whether we're talking scarcity or abundance, are very much on government and corporate radars. Corporations are really starting to acknowledge the importance of water, evident from the creation of things like the water disclosure project within the carbon disclosure project. Water reporting is becoming a priority for CFOs and people at the corporate level, so they are starting to track water-related risk. Generally, governments are a bit slower to move than corporate actors.

But even governments are moving because water issues are hitting states and people where they feel it most – the economy. More and more, people are feeling the cost of poor water management. Climate change is part of why people are feeling this more acutely as water-related risks don’t emerge in isolation – they are part of broader climate change-induced challenges.

Water-related risks mean that worldwide, protection of public environmental health is moving to the forefront of public and private agendas. The issue most of world faces isn’t one of water scarcity; it’s of water management. Countries may have enough water, but (and this is increasingly the case) it comes at the wrong times, in difficult-to-manage amounts.

What is the greatest risk to Canada’s water resources specifically?

We’re not Israel, Australia, or the Southwest United States, so we're not backing up against a water-scarcity wall. The greatest risk for us right now is that we generally don’t have an appreciation for how critical water is to our livelihood and our economy.

Water is a critical economic driver for Canadian industry. Steven Renzetti and Diane Dupont estimated that water contributes 8-23 billion dollars to the Canadian economy which is probably a woeful underestimate because those are only the parts that are actually costed by the market. The value of things like wetlands and many other water sources that contribute to our economic wellbeing aren’t included in that estimate. This under-appreciation of the value of our water is the greatest risk to Canada because it increases the likelihood that we will fail to manage our resources in a sustainable way.

Sustainable water management does require significant investment. Each country and municipality needs to find the best way to spend the limited resources available for monitoring water quantity and quality. The CWN assists in the municipal context by connecting those who are advancing the science of monitoring with those who need to know how best to prioritize their limited resources.

Are attitudes in Canada around water changing for the better?  

There’s a business case here for doing the right thing on water that is impacting corporate attitudes in a positive way. The corporate sector gets that water is of economic value and increasingly, they're acting in a way that reflects this, whether its IBM and their Smarter Planet initiative or Coca Cola. These companies are looking at their bottom line and seeing reason to care about water usage – it’s not just their concern for social good. From a GDP and productivity point of view, it’s clearly in the interest of countries and companies to start thinking about water management as a way to become more competitive in other countries. So, the CWN is trying to make a better business case for water – to show that good water management pays dividends. That’s why CWN created the Blue Economy Initiative with the Walter & Ducan Gordon Foundation and RBC.

What about public attitudes in general?

I’d say the biggest danger for Canada is still the attitudes of Canadians, specifically their unawareness that the cost of investing in water management will be paid back many times over. We need to help people understand that water is a right and a responsibility, and that this goes all the way down to the most mundane daily uses. That's part of why the Canadian Water Attitude's Survey is so important – we need to understand whether people feel a sense of entitlement to water, or if they think of it as a right they earn by behaving responsibly.

Instead of thinking while you brush your teeth or fill the kettle, “I pay my taxes, I should get perfectly potable water, why should I conserve?” you should be asking, “How much did I pay for this water? What did it take to get it to me at a quality level that I can safely use? Does the cost reflect that?" In our current water paradigm, every step to manage water better is seen as an additional cost, not something that will provide additional value.

Changing the attitude paradigm will require widespread realization that compared to the rest of the world, we have a global competitive advantage in terms of our water resources and a concomitant responsibility to manage those resources appropriately. This is a challenge, but it will be easier to overcome if we start to appreciate the huge economic motive Canada has to use its water resources sustainably.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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