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THE TIME FOR REFORM IS NOW
The Need for a National Water Agency in Canada
Bob Sandford holds the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Located on the campus of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, UNU-INWEH is the only UN University Institute located in Canada.
The idea that Canada possesses 20% of all the freshwater on Earth has been a source of Canadian pride since before Confederation. Unfortunately, it is just a myth. While we possess a great deal of water in some parts of the country much of that water is left over from the melting of the two-kilometre deep ice sheets that covered almost all of Canada at the close of the last great Ice Age. Only 6.5% of water we claim to possess is returned to us each year through the annual precipitation cycle.
Another nagging truth eating away at the myth of limitless abundance of water in Canada is the fact we are among the most egregious water wasters in the world. We also pollute a great deal of our water effectively removing it from the water cycle often at great expense to natural ecosystem function. Among the biggest threats to water supply and quality in Canada are those posed by industrial agriculture.
Far outweighing these threats to the myth of limitless abundance of water in Canada is the fact that by way of our needs and our numbers, humanity has begun to accelerate the rate and manner in which water moves through the global hydrological cycle. The statistics from the past related to how surface, subsurface and atmospheric water will act under a variety of given circumstances are no longer reliable. This, we have recently discovered, is a lot more serious than we at first thought. It is now widely held that continuing to assume hydrological stability in designing our cities and our infrastructure, in planning to supply water to growing populations; and growing our food is no longer practical or even defensible. The myth of limitless abundance of water is not going to survive this assault. So what is going on out there?
The most profound changes to the hydrological cycle relate to how much more water a warmer atmosphere can hold. We have known for more than a century that for every degree Celsius of warming we can expect the atmosphere to carry 7% more water vapour. If you increase the temperature of the atmosphere by 2°C the atmosphere can carry as much as 14% more water. If you raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 4°C it will carry 28% more water. This in combination with rising sea surface temperatures allows for extreme cloud bursts and storms with greater power that last longer and carry more punch.
What we are also discovering is that the ratio of snow to liquid water in the great seasonal redistribution of precipitation in Northern Hemisphere is changing with huge potential consequences for all of us. Nowhere is this more evident than in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Research has demonstrated that we lost some 300 glaciers in the mountain national parks region of the Rockies alone in the 85 years between 1920 and 2005. This loss is expected to continue with over 90% of the ice that exists in the interior ranges of Canada’s western mountains expected to be gone by the end of this century. The loss of glacial ice is but a symptom of a much larger problem. The same warming that is causing our glaciers to disappear so quickly is reducing snowpack and the duration and extent of snow cover throughout the mountain West. Snowpack and snow cover are now declining by 17% per decade. By mid-century the Canadian West will be as changed by this as it was by European settlement.
What we are also seeing in Canada is that the loss of Arctic sea ice and the rapid reduction of the extent and duration of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere are impacting the behaviour of the jet stream which in turn is translating into more erratic weather patterns. On November 17th, 2016, the temperatures over the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean were 20°C above normal for this time of year. The less ice there is in the Arctic the slower and wavier the jet stream becomes and the more erratically it behaves. The Arctic is now well on its way to becoming a driver of, rather than just a responder to, global change. We are now beginning to understand the extent to which Arctic sea ice acts as a thermostat controlling climate right down to the mid-latitudes throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
What researchers are demonstrating is that all of these changes are not taking place independent of one another. There is a direct systemic link between water, land and climate. A good place to start in re-imagining how the Earth system works is to start with water. It is well known that 90% of global heat dynamics are controlled by hydrological processes. The warmer the temperature of the global atmosphere, the more evaporation there is and the more water the atmosphere can hold and transport. Changes in land use and cover in combination with changes in the behaviour of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream brought about by the reduction of Arctic sea ice impact where and how much water in the atmosphere comes down to Earth in the form of precipitation. Continuing changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere brought about by fossil fuel and other greenhouse emissions in combination with the reduced capacity of human-altered landscapes to store and absorb carbon are accelerating the rate and manner at which water moves through the global hydrological cycle. The acceleration of the global water cycle is resulting simultaneously in more catastrophic storms and deeper and more persistent droughts. The trend toward ever more disastrous weather events and deeper and more damaging droughts will persist until we stabilize the composition of the global atmosphere and restore the stability of the global hydrologic cycle. To restore the water cycle we need to manage land and water as living systems.
To do that Canada urgently needs a new water ethic – and if we are to continue to prosper in rapidly changing global hydro-climatic conditions – we need it now. We know what to do; it is time to do it.
Canada’s water crisis is in part due to federal and provincial government neglect of the links between growing water and water-related climate issues. Despite clear scientific evidence, governments have refused to acknowledge that we face the cascading cumulative effects of increasingly damaging industrial, mining and agricultural water contamination; increases in flooding brought about by inappropriate land use and development in flood plains and headwaters; and ever more damaging extremes of flood and drought brought about by climate disruptions to which we have contributed by altering the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
While the extent of these problems is strategically hidden within various silos of federal and provincial jurisdiction, evidence of this growing crisis can be found right across Canada. Algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg are fed by agricultural run-off and municipal sewage from four provinces and the U.S. and now cover up to 15,000 square kilometres, making it one of the most threatened major fresh water bodies in the world. At the same time, Lake Erie, which had been successfully brought back to health from a near-death state in the 1960s, has been backsliding into its previous polluted condition. The same dangerous cyanotoxins that are now being found in algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg and Lake Erie have now been found in 246 lakes across the country. The deteriorating condition of Canada’s fresh water has not gone unnoticed abroad. International perception of poor water quality management is restricting Canada’s ability to transport and export oil. Despite this, we appear to be almost oblivious to the costs of our short-sighted and uncoordinated management our water resources to our economy.
In addition to the substantial costs of remediating water contamination, flood and drought crises along with related storm damage and forest fire impacts are now hammering every region of the country as climate change accelerates. Economic losses associated with drought on the Canadian prairies between 2000 and 2004 exceeded $4 billion and the Alberta- Saskatchewan-Manitoba floods of 2011-2014, which included major flooding in the City of Calgary exceeded $11 billion. The cost of one day of heavy rainfall in June 2013 in Toronto ultimate reached $1 billion. Drought extending from Mexico to Alaska and from Vancouver Island to Manitoba in 2015 resulted in massive and very costly wild fires that restricted oil production in Canada and impacted food availability widely throughout North America. How has Canada responded to this crisis?
Prior to the federal election of 2015, our federal government’s response to this national crisis demonstrated little foresight. Water monitoring on a national level and federal commitment to science had been incrementally cut over several decades. Canada stood out and at the time of this writing continues to stand out in the developed world for having neither a national flood forecast system nor mandatory drinking water standards. Appalling water quality and human health conditions on First Nations and other remote downstream communities has put Canada on an infamous ‘third world’ footing in terms of meeting global water supply and sanitation goals – unacceptable in a G7 country.
How did we get into this mess? There was a time – the 1970s and early 1980s – when Canada had a world class reputation for building our national prosperity on superbly clean and abundant water the on-going supply of which was assured by outstanding water science and careful federal management oversight. The decay of Canada’s water management reputation began with the break-up of the Federal Inland Waters Directorate in the 1990s, followed by decimation of federal water science and Federal gradual withdrawal from national flood damage reduction programs and drought mitigation initiatives. The near death knell of Canada’s water management reputation came later with the Harper government’s abrogation of responsibility for fisheries habitat, navigable waters protection and environmental impact assessment. With the Federal government missing in action, water issues in Canada now fall in a largely uncoordinated fashion to the ten Provinces and three territories resulting in atomization of water management policy. The weakness in this arrangement is that more than 75% of Canadians live in boundary water basins shared either with the United States or with other provinces and territories. The failure of Federal leadership ignores the reality of water flow and leaves Canada vulnerable in an era of rapid hydro-climatic change to major water crises that are already impoverishing regional economies and now stand poised to restrict economic growth of the entire country by limiting agricultural and energy production and damaging or destroying costly infrastructure.
The newly elected Trudeau government has indicated a readiness to address Canada’s water crisis by implementing flood and drought forecasting and management, and improving water quality and fishery protection and transboundary water management through advice based on enhanced water science and observations. The Canada First Research Excellent Fund has invested heavily in initiatives like the Global Water Futures Research Program. Presently the largest university-based water research program in the world, this 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. But while research is necessary and valuable what is equally important is the restructuring of water governance in Canada and abroad. One of the first possible steps in this process would be for the Federal Government to appoint a Secretary of State for Water in Canada.
The problems Canada faces with respect to the management of its water resources cannot be addressed by simply adding additional government departments and more layers of bureaucracy. What is needed is stronger leadership and enhanced coordination between existing departments and jurisdictions at all levels and a better bridge between scientific research outcomes and the timely and orderly evolution of public policy. The beauty of Secretary of State positions is that they can be created quickly to very specifically address both lingering and new government priorities in times of fiscal restraint without the complicated, time-consuming and expensive task of creating new bureaucracy. Secretaries of State are given mandates to use existing bureaucratic resources to achieve specific objectives in domains important to the Prime Minister and the government.
The office of the Secretary of State for Water would act as a badly-needed portal for Canadian water interests -- federal departments with different responsibilities for water, First Nations, provincial governments, universities, industry, municipal governments, watershed groups, NGOS, the IJC, etc. – ?to converge on and inform a national water vision. In addition to acting as a locus for stakeholder input, a Secretary of State for Water could help pre-empt inter-jurisdictional disputes in Canada around water and provide a vehicle for the kind of cooperation that can lead to the seamless governance of the country's freshwater resources; in the process making Ottawa a partner, versus competitor, of the provinces and territories in sustainable water management.
Many federal cabinet ministers have responsibility for water, but in no case is it their only dedicated responsibility. If the new Federal government wants the governance of water in Canada to be commensurate with its worth to our economy and our future and fully realize the benefits of investing in research, its objective should be to appoint a national water champion -- a Secretary of State for Water -- supported by a small staff of the country's most knowledgeable water policy experts and advocates?.
It should be the goal of the office of the Secretary of State for Water to determine the areas most in need of attention and action, whether within the federal sphere or the broader inter-jurisdictional realm.? Managing water in the 21st century demands such capacity. The rewards for Canada could be huge. A dedicated ministerial focus on water at the federal level could bring a long-awaited "national water strategy", emerging ex post facto, rather than from a general conceptual framework, as the policy gaps are tangibly highlighted and filled by the Secretary of State and his or her office leveraging the resources of existing government bureaucracies.
If we are to continue to prosper in rapidly-changing hydro-climatic conditions, Canada's urgently needs a new water ethic. We know what we need to do to foster that ethic; this is one way to get started.