On this most important anniversary for our country, we have opportunity to reflect upon the role water has played in shaping our identity. When people think of Canada, they think of water—in all its forms. Falling snow, dazzling ice, sparkling rivers, and more than two million lakes. Canada is the heaven to which the world’s water gravitates when it needs to be reminded of its purpose and its power.
But over the last 150 years our world has changed. There are more of us, and our impact on the world is greater. We find that we need a new water ethic, one that dispels the national myth of limitless abundance and connects us again with the sinuous, sensuous nature of our water courses. As part of that new ethic, we have to solve the problems that we have created with respect to the impact of our numbers and our needs on Canadian waters. In other words, we must get our water house in order for the next 150 years.
Francis Scarpallegia, the Member of Parliament for Lac-Saint-Louis in Montreal, has offered such a vision. Drawing on our existing strengths, Scarpallegia has proposed that Canada distinguish itself on the world stage by offering foreign aid to support initiatives abroad related to the United Nations global sustainability goals related to water. He also argued that we have the knowledge and experience to collaborate with other nations that wish to manage water in an integrated and sustainable way. By doing so, we can create a new water ethic in Canada—we only need to put all the pieces together.
Sustainable Development Goal policy support
The United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU IWEH) has created a framework for meeting the targets of sustainable development goals on water and water-related goals inthe UN’s Transforming Our World Agenda.
National policy makers responsible for water from environmental and socio-economic perspectives face the challenge of putting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 into action and of measuring and reporting on their policy and implementation progress. The UNU IWEH, located in Hamilton, Ontario, and its partners have developed a policy support system to allow governments to measure and report on the progress of six policy critical sustainable development components. The aim is to enable governments to accelerate the sustainability process by supporting cross-sector, evidence-based policy and planning with respect to water-related SDGs. Such a framework would assist in making Scarpallegia’s vision a reality.
This Policy Support System is export-ready. It is presently undergoing trials in five countries: Republic of Korea, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Ghana. Canada must also consider using this process.
Citizen science and community-based monitoring
One the best potential exports for improved integrated watershed management has been the movement toward citizen science and community-based monitoring. Climate change is rapidly imposing new paradigms for water management as the direct and indirect costs of managing extreme weather events continues to rise. These rising costs impact the economic and social stability of communities. Informed decisions regarding the allocation of water, water conservation, source water protection, and watershed ecosystem health need to be made based on sound scientific data. But, unfortunately, even in tandem, governments at all levels do not have the resources to address all water data deficiencies.
If done correctly and based on recognized standard protocols, citizen science and community-based water monitoring have been proven to provide cost effective, accurate scientific data to decision-makers. These approaches have the added benefit of increasing water literacy and empowering citizen engagement to help steward local watersheds. The pioneering work of Living Lakes Canada, Living Lakes International and the Global Nature Fund, and pilot projects in the Northwest Territories have demonstrated the potential to inform decisions at multiple scales while building the country’s water stewardship culture.
The UN’s 2030 Transforming Our World agenda makes it very clear that sustainable development can no longer simply aim for environmentally neutral solutions. If we are to achieve any meaningful level of sustainability, all development must also be restorative.
Canadians are at the leading edge of the entirely new field of restoration hydrology or what is also known applied regenerative hydrology. We are increasing our understanding of landforms and how they are influenced by precipitation, increasing soil moisture and health while at the same time providing free water storage. Through productive ecological succession, we unlock ecosystems as disaster risk reduction tools and bolster their role in carbon sequestration, and while creating healthier, safer. and more pleasant and productive places to live.
As a result, we are shifting investment in Canada toward restoration of upland watersheds with the goal of viewing water infrastructure not just in terms of hard engineering but as a combination of both natural and engineering elements. Canadian expertise in mine water reclamation, as exhibited at an INCO site in Sudbury, Ontario, and the Britannia mine site in British Columbia are examples of this.
Urban water infrastructure and asset management
In the face of more extreme weather events in the future, we need rain gardens, green roofs, stormwater parks, cisterns, and solutions that in addition to their ecological role can function as public art; this is already done in some cities. We are getting better and better at utilizing restoration hydrology as a critical element of urban adaptation to climate disruption; we have much to export to low-income countries/the world majority who want to leapfrog outdated approaches and adopt new and more sustainable technologies and practices.
Approximately half of the some-250 transboundary basins around the world lack multi-lateral agreements for managing shared water resources. Canada’s Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) is comprised of many of the world’s leading experts on water policy. With a century of experience with the International Joint Commission and the Boundary Waters Treaty to the Columbia River Treaty and institutions developed to manage waters that cross provincial and territorial borders, Canada has substantial, exportable experience developing and sustaining robust mechanisms for governing shared waters. Canada can also built upon breakthroughs that have been made here in crafting ground-breaking transboundary water agreements and treaties, such as the 2015 transboundary water agreements between Northwest Territories and the governments of Alberta and British Columbia.
Canadian freshwater science
The Canada First Research Excellent Fund has invested heavily in initiatives like the Global Water Futures Research Program. Presently, this program is the largest university-based water research program in the world. The partnership-based, seven-year science initiative aims to transform the way communities, governments, and industries in Canada and other cold regions of the world prepare for and manage an increasing number of water-related threats. An integrated flood and drought prediction system, which the network has promised to deliver, would be a highly-prized export product.
Canada 150 vision
On December 21, 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution entitled International Decade for Action Water for Sustainable Development, 2018-2028. Sponsored by 177 member states, the Decade aims to promote sustainable development and integrated water resources management, as well as increased cooperation and partnerships to support the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
The declaration of the United Nations on the global water crisis presents Canada a nested win-win-win opportunity. By actively participating in this Decade of Action, Canada can improve its own water management, while simultaneously helping others abroad do the same.
Canada provides its best policies, practices, and technologies to others. Through this, we advance the water sector and our country in the direction of a new national water ethic. And as we do so, we not only get our own house in order, we help create a better, more just, equitable, and sustainable world for others. On the country’s 150th birthday, this would be a fitting gift.
R.W. Sandford is the EPCOR Chair of Water & Climate Security with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.