Stormy Waters Ahead for Canada

OpenCanada talked to Bob Sandford about the threat posed by water-related impacts of extreme weather.
By: /
March 22, 2013

What are Canadians concerned about when it comes to Canada’s water resources? Do their concerns match up with reality? Does it matter? OpenCanada talked to Bob Sandford, chair of Canadian Partnership Initiative of the UN Water for Life Decade and member of the Advisory Panel for the RBC Blue Water Project about the threat posed by water-related impacts of extreme weather and whether global climate change is going to force Canadians to think and act differently toward water.

How do the attitudes of Canadians toward water compare to those elsewhere?

Canadians have this myth of limitless water abundance. Canadians are largely unaware that population pressures in the Southern part of the country – particularly through the development of industry and agriculture— are laying the foundation for the kind of water crisis many less water abundant countries are experiencing.

We shouldn’t be surprised that as our population increases, our activity and subsequent impact on the landscape also increases. But people often are. The RBC 2013 Canadian Water Attitudes Survey is very helpful in finding out what people think about the importance and impact of water in their lives. Finding out what people think is important from the point of view of being able to effectively manage water, because how people think affects the decisions they make around water.

Water is also a measure of landscape change and it is the vehicle through which climate change will first manifest and impact us. Extreme weather and flooding events have started to affect people’s lives and exert pressure on infrastructure on a regular basis. By examining what people think about the water-related risks of extreme weather events, we can learn how well they understand the situation and if we need to design programs to help them understand it better. We can act on this knowledge of attitudes to change our policies and behaviours.


Should we think of extreme weather as turning water, a valuable resource, into a source of vulnerability?

People tend to think that our vulnerability comes from climate-change induced increases in heat – but we also need to think about what heat does to the atmosphere. With every single degree Celsius of temperature increase, the atmosphere is able to hold 7% more water. You can see this across the country. You see it in the North with the melting of permafrost and the loss of glaciers. You see it in the western mountains where we’ve lost 300 glaciers at least between 1920 and 2005. On the prairies, snow regimes are changing in the Northern hemisphere. In the Great Lakes region, there’s Lake Huron, where problems with the St. Clair River are increasing – we’re seeing declines in water levels that are unprecedented. It’s partly because the lake isn’t frozen as long and higher temperatures cause greater evaporation. So, you’re seeing this phenomenon of increasing temperatures altering the hydrologic circumstances right across the country.

Water is moving to a different place in the hydrosphere. We’ve been taking our legacy of post-glacial, hydrological wealth for granted. There were huge glaciers and big deep lakes left over from the last ice age but temperatures changes are moving more of this water into the atmosphere to fuel incredibly intense storms like the one Toronto experienced in 2005, which caused 700,000 dollars worth of damage in two hours. We need to start seeing water as the vehicle for climate effects.

Do Canadians understand that water infrastructure is under increasing stress?

What we find in water attitudes surveys is very interesting because you see that Canadians think they have a good understanding of where their water comes from and how it is transported but that they actually don’t. They’re not very aware of the condition of the water and sewage infrastructure that serves their homes and communities.

We have an 18 billion dollar deficit and crumbling infrastructure across the country but more than 80% of Canadians still feel everything is okay. People worry about their own vulnerability to the increasing intensity of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and 2/3 of those people say they want to ensure their communities are ready for these possibilities. What most Canadians don’t realize is that they can do a great deal to protect themselves, their property, and their community from the water-related impacts of this type of extreme weather threat. Individual homeowners can do a great deal by simply maintaining eavestroughs and roofs and spouts, things like landscape grading in Toronto. There’s so much paved surface in Toronto, there can be little absorption. If we look to international examples, we see that this type of improvement has a big effect on minimizing and reducing the impact of extreme weather events.

Are there lessons for Canada in the responses of other countries to extreme weather events?

Most of the rest of the world would like to have the problems that we have. Relative to many countries, we are still ahead of the water infrastructure maintenance and replacement curve, even though most of our cities have suspended or cut back programs. If we don’t start paying attention to these matters, the same things will happen to us as has happened to others who ignored the impact of growing population on water supply and quality.

Agricultural runoff is a big problem for municipal water treatment, and we also have groundwater problems across the country. We’re also beginning to see the changing hydrological cycle cause flooding and intense storms in places like Southern Manitoba, flooding that may in the future make parts of this area uninhabitable. This will have a huge impact on agricultural activity and subsequently on budgetary issues. The Disaster Relief Bill for the Manitoba floods cost one billion dollars, which turned out to be exactly the amount of the deficit of the province of Manitoba the following year. There’s a direct link between water, economy, and how we manage our infrastructure. International examples suggest to us that its wise to consider the design standards of urban water infrastructure.

What if Hurricane Sandy had hit Canada harder? What would the biggest issue have been?

Storm water systems are not designed for events of such extreme intensity. The design of the cities gives them a lot of hard surfaces so the storm water flows through and picks up garbage and every imaginable pollutant. So, when you get floods like that, you get a chemical soup. It’s not water anymore. Storm water can be an enormous health hazard in its own right.

When I watched Hurricane Sandy unfold, I did worry about Toronto because the infrastructure of big Canadian cities was designed for an earlier climatic regime – one that no longer exists. The one-in-one hundred year events that they were designed to be able to manage are happening a lot more frequently now. When events of greater intensity start happening more regularly, it starts to overwhelm the system. The infrastructure designed in certain eras also relied upon materials and systems that are not as durable the ones available today. What we have now are a lot of systems that are badly in need of repair or replacement. The less prepared our infrastructure is, the more property damage we suffer. The most vulnerable zones suffer most often, creating constant misery and causing insurance issues. More and more municipalities are facing expensive and inconvenient problems as a result of extreme weather events.

Will it take a storm of Hurricane Sandy’s magnitude to shock us into making the necessary investments in infrastructure?

Municipalities understand the nature of the problem. In Toronto, for example, I see the water infrastructure people trying to lead the country and convince people that inadequate water infrastructure is a real threat. The problem is that staying on top of infrastructure issues is expensive. And dealing with disaster insurance from previous events takes money away from prevention and infrastructure improvement spending. The costs of dealing with extreme weather events are staggering and the risk of these events are not going to diminish – this is the new normal for Canada and the world. This is why it is so important for individuals to do whatever they can to mitigate the water-related risks that come in the wake of storms and floods.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity