How Much Longer Can We Go Without Leadership on Water?

Media Appearances, Trade, Ralph Pentland

The recent report released by the Montreal Economic Institute is another in a long line of reports from economic institutes and private entrepreneurs that have suggested the value to be gained from exporting water from Canadian river basins. Earlier in the summer, the Frontier Centre for Policy promoted the idea of Manitoba getting rich from selling its water wealth. These reports are neither original nor surprising, but they are certainly distracting.

The problem with the perennial bulk exports debate, now half a century old, is that it directs our gaze toward thirsty American water thieves and away from improving our own stewardship of this most essential public resource. In response to these reports and the inevitable public concern they arouse, provincial and federal governments steadfastly assert that they have no interest in exporting water. Yet the debate survives because a definitive Canadian law that would prohibit water exports does not exist and current provincial laws are inadequate.

To move beyond this issue, national legislation is needed that is both consistent with Canada’s trade obligations and respectful of the roles of different levels of government within Canada, something that was proposed in A Model Act for Preserving Canada’s Waters by the Canadian Water Issues Council earlier this year.

Getting beyond the bulk export debate is so critical because – as a recent internal federal report obtained by The Canadian Press illuminates – Canadians and their governments have for too long bought into the myth of endless water abundance.

The reality is in fact very different. Melting glaciers, declining summer flows, and more frequent floods indicate that Canada’s water resources are experiencing some of the earliest and most profound impacts of climate change. Untreated sewage is regularly flushed into Canadian waterways. 1,859 boil-water advisories exist in communities across the nation, while Canadians are second only to U.S. citizens in the quantity of water they consume.

These existing challenges will only be compounded as global warming accelerates and increasingly integrated continental and global economies push Canada toward unsustainable resource exploitation threatening watercourses and undermining our economic and environmental security.

Unfortunately at this critical juncture, Canada is ill-equipped to meet these multiple challenges. Since the 1987 Federal Water Policy, the number and severity of Canadian water issues have significantly increased, while our national capacity to deal with them has dramatically declined.

There is still no effective centre of water policy leadership at the federal level. There is some academic research but little policy relevant science in Canada that is both independent of the political process and independent of the primary abusers of water resources. Government’s essential basic data and other water science programs have been severely downsized and degraded over the past two decades.

In a more complex and unpredictable world, merely allowing the policy drift that has occurred over the past two decades to continue and attempting to deal with problems as they occur is a recipe for potential disaster. A preferred set of strategies would include: reducing the underlying threats as much and as early as possible; building the scientific and technical capacity necessary to deal with inevitable surprises as they occur; and maintaining enough resilience in our aquatic ecosystems to enable us to cope effectively with most eventualities.

With those objectives in mind, a group of concerned scientists and citizens came together under the name of the Gordon Water Group last fall, and devised a comprehensive set of recommendations for the consideration of federal legislators in a report entitled Changing the Flow: A Blueprint for Federal Action on Freshwater.

It is believed that the group’s 25 recommendations would establish a foundation for the type of national effort that is required to forge a new path for freshwater protection and management. Recommendations include: enacting minimum national standards for safe drinking water; helping communities prepare for droughts and floods; funding critical water infrastructure renewal; strengthening scientific capacity; and investing in a national water conservation program.

While the recommendations are aimed primarily at improved federal leadership in the first instance, it is recognized that most water and environmental matters must ultimately be addressed at the local level. Nevertheless, the most important challenges that we will face in the coming decades will almost all require a combination of effective “steering” at the international, federal and provincial levels, and effective “rowing” at more local levels of government, as well as throughout civil society.

It is time for governments to eliminate the debilitating uncertainty surrounding bulk water exports in order to get on with the job of managing Canadian water for Canadians. The risk of losing our water due to domestic mismanagement is much more likely and imminent than the risk of losing water through large-scale bulk exports.

We must act now if we hope to sustain an adequate supply of clean water for our children and grandchildren and we must demand a comprehensive Canadian water strategy that is effectively implemented and protects the interests of all Canadian citizens.

Ralph Pentland is a former director with Environment Canada’s Water Planning and Management. Jim Bruce is the Canadian Policy Representative with the Soil and Water Conservation Society.