Securing our Water Wealth

Canada is facing a water governance crisis and needs to look abroad for solutions says Tony Maas.
By: /
March 22, 2013

World Water Day is a great reminder of the importance of fresh water to our culture, to our economy, to our communities – and to the environment that sustains us all. And despite the fact that on this March 22 most of the water in Canada is still in a fairly solid state, we may also find ourselves reflecting on formative moments that each and every one of us has had in, on, or around water: a hot summer day at the beach, catching our first fish, crashing down a wild river or a peaceful paddle on a cool lake. It is a good time to remember how lucky we are to live in one of the world’s water wealthy countries. But World Water Day is also a time to pause and take a look around the world to think about what our water wealth means in a global context, and if we are doing all that we can to secure it.

In October 2011, the world’s 7 billionth person was born.  A young lady from the Philippines named Danica May Camacho was awarded the rather dubious honour. Danica was born into a world in which 783 million people – around 11 per cent of the world's population – lack reliable access to safe drinking water; into a world in which freshwater biodiversity around the world is declining at an alarming rate – by 37 per cent since 1970. In her lifetime, she will see the global population rise to ten billion. So will my own six-year-old son. It is these kids who will confront the United Nations’ prediction that by 2050, seven billion people in 60 countries could be facing water scarcity.

In this context, Canada’s water wealth becomes an important global resource. No doubt we will be called upon increasingly – because of our water – to take on a leading role in feeding, clothing and sustaining another three billion people on the planet. The challenge we face is to do so while also protecting and restoring the health of the lakes and rivers that we so cherish.


The state of Canadian water policy

Almost one year ago the Government of Canada introduced a budget that destabilized our country’s water community – a community of scientists, policy experts, and advocates from across industry, indigenous communities, civil society and NGOs, academia and government agencies. Budget 2012, and the two omnibus bills (C-38 and C-45) it took to move it to implementation, included major reforms to critical pieces of legislation Canadians have long relied on to protect our waterways: the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. It also ushered in deep cuts to staff and budgets at key government agencies like Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and signaled the beginning of the end for respected research and advisory bodies including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). The impacts of many of these changes are just now taking hold, and have the potential to send ripples, if not waves, through the waters of Canada for years and decades to come.

These recent legal reforms and budgetary cuts might best be described as a precipitous decent in attention to water science and policy by the Government of Canada that follows a trend of steady decline over the past three decades. As documented in the 2007 report Changing the Flow by the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW), at one point, the federal government monitored water quality at 4,000 sites – that number has since dropped to about 2,500. Personnel working on environmental science for Environment Canada were cut by 26 percent between 1992 and 2007 and by 21 per cent for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In 1998, Environment Canada determined that it needed at least 300 staff for effective enforcement of the laws it is responsible to administer. In 2003, it had 93.

When the cuts to federal agencies responsible for water science and policy included in Budget 2012 are piled on top of these past trends it becomes troublingly clear that the resource we are most at risk of losing in Canada today is not our oil and gas, our forests or even our fresh water – it is the science we need to secure a sustainable future for Canada and for the planet. This is why over 1000 scientists marched on Parliament Hill last July; why the concern over what will happen to ELA will just not go away; why some of the key changes to the Fisheries Act included in Budget 2012 have yet to come into force or to be translated into workable policy. Science is the foundation of sound public policy.

One of the often cited conundrums of water policy in Canada is that our constitution is not crystal clear on which level of government to peg responsibility for fresh water. The answer is what causes some unease: responsibility for water management is shared between federal, provincial, territorial, and aboriginal governments. Over the past three decades the federal government has, both quietly, and more recently not so quietly, opted for deference to the provinces when it comes to protecting the health of Canada’s waters. But this deference can only go so far until it runs – as it is currently – headlong into our constitutional reality. Fish need fresh water. Fresh water is fundamental to the lives, livelihoods, and culture of Indigenous peoples. Fresh water flows between provinces and territories and across our international border. All of these responsibilities and others sit squarely with the federal government.

The provinces and territories, for their part, have been stepping up on the water front. Over the past decade we have witnessed a surge of new water strategies: in Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan, as well as significant legislative initiatives such as Ontario’s proposed Great Lakes Protection Act, which is currently before the provincial legislature, and the ongoing efforts to reform British Columbia’s hundred-year-old Water Act.

Searching for success in the water

Despite these efforts, and efforts of water stewardship organizations across the country, we continue to face problems related to water quality, water quantity, and aquatic ecosystem health. At the same time, climate change is introducing new challenges as glaciers melt, precipitation patterns change, and flood and drought become more frequent and widespread. This raises some critical questions: What are all of these efforts adding up to? How will we know if, or when, they are successful? Are they improving conditions in the water – in our lakes and rivers?

As someone who has been watching water policy across Canada for over a decade, it troubles me to be unable to offer a clear answer to these questions. It seems to me that what we are lacking is a clear, measurable goal toward which to direct legal and policy reforms, and the many, diverse projects of water stewards across the country. We lack a clear sense of what we are aiming for or where we are heading, which should, of course, be a precursor to any discussion of how to get there.

Solutions from abroad

While we spend a bit of time on World Water Day taking a look around the world to think about what our water wealth means in a global context, we might also take a moment to look for solutions – for progressive water policies from other parts of the planet. To South Africa, for example, where the 1998 National Water Act enshrined water for human health and for ecosystem health as fundamental priorities. Or to Australia, where federal and state governments are working together under the 2004 National Water Commission. But for Canada – it is the European Union that stands out as a beacon.

The European Union Water Framework Directive starts with a simple goal: achieving “good ecological status” of all waters in the Union by 2015. And it lays out clear reporting requirements to track progress toward meeting this goal. But the big secret to the success of the Framework that Canada should be looking to is collaboration. Although the EU is not a true federal system, jurisdiction over environmental issues – including water – is often shared between two levels of government: member states and the central European Government. It would seem to me that if collaboration under a common goal and shared framework can be accomplished among the European Union’s 27 member states (and across 23 official languages), we should not be too quick to dismiss such an approach as untenable in the Canadian federation.

In her 2007 book Eau Canada: The future of Canada’s water, UBC Professor Karen Bakker asserts that water governance in Canada is in a state of crisis. She goes on to note that she means crisis “in the true sense of the word: a turning point in which weaknesses are exposed, challenges are confronted, and opportunities for innovation arise.” Given all of the changes to water policy that we are witnessing across Canada today – some positive, others troubling – it may be that this crisis is reaching a fever pitch. Now may be the time to confront our challenges head on, and seek out real opportunities for innovation. That will take leadership and collaboration from across the Canadian federation, and an end to the political buck-passing under the guise of decentralized federalism that has led us to the crisis we face.

Also in the series


Waternomics 101

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Risky Attitudes Toward Water

OpenCanada asked Bernadette Connant about water risk management and how we can better leverage our competitive advantage in water.

Are We Running Out Of Water?

Canadians have a way of taking their plentiful water resources for granted. Yes, we have a lot of fresh water, but that doesn't mean we don't have to manage it sustainably.

Three Canadian Water Myths

Ralph Pentland, author of Down the Drain: How we are Failing to Protect our Water Resources, debunks three of the biggest myths about Canada's water resources.