Raiding the water bank: we need policy changes to protect our most prized resource.
The world faces a great number of problems today and many of them relate to water. When the United Nations established its Millennium Development Goals, improving the global water supply was an important priority. At present there are a billion people on Earth who do not have reliable access to fresh water. There are more than two billion who do not have adequate sanitation. In response to growing problems associated with water supply and quality worldwide, the UN declared 2003 the International Year of Fresh Water. In 2005 the United Nations declared the UN Decade for Action, Water for Life, as a means of responding to what has now been identified as a full-blown global water crisis. Some 85 countries are engaged in this initiative.
The purpose of the UN Water for Life partnership in Canada is to put Canadian water issues in a global context. The goal of this initiative, which includes dozens of government and private sector partners, is to learn from others so that issues of water availability and quality do not limit our social and economic development in Canada in the future. While this will be surprising to many, preventing water quality and scarcity from limiting our future may not be as easy as it sounds, particularly in parts of the Canadian West. In Eau Canada: The Future of Canada's Water, University of British Columbia water policy scholar Karen Bakker and her colleagues tell us why.
There are few works that come out of academia that are as immediately direct, forceful and timely as this book. Karen Bakker is unabashed in her analysis of what has been described as the "shocking" way we manage water at a national level in Canada. She believes we need to re-examine the very principles upon which our governance of water is founded in Canada. She is in good company. In 18 papers presented by many of this country's most respected water scholars, Bakker brings together a formative argument for what we must do to reform water policy in Canada.
Eau Canada is a book that aims to dispel myths about water quality and availability in Canada. Bakker does not waste any time on pleasantries. She believes it is high time we overcame stalemates and filled policy vacuums in Canada. In her considered opinion, we need to renew federal water policy and clarify federal-provincial roles in water management with particular reference to transboundary water issues. We need a nationwide consensus on drinking water management and to strengthen weak and poorly enforced environmental regulations relating to water quality. Bakker also wants accountable and transparent governance mechanisms that ensure that indigenous people's water rights are recognized and integrated into a more enlightened national water strategy. She is concerned that Canadians spend far too much time worrying about water exports and not nearly enough time thinking about the damage caused by how we divert and manage water in our own country.
Most Canadians will be bewildered by these demands. "We have a quarter of the world's fresh water," they will declare. "How can we possibly have a problem with water?" John Sprague responds to this myth in his essay "Great Wet North? Canada's Myth of Water Abundance." It is true that in comparison to the rest of the world, Canada has adequate water, and so does the United States. But it is not limitless as we so often want to believe. We have about 2,850 cubic kilometres, or roughly 6.5 percent of the world's total renewable fresh water resource. By renewable Sprague means water that is replaced in any given year through rain and snowfall. The rest of our water is stored in lakes or in ice or permanent snow. It is fossil water, so to speak, in that it is left over from an earlier, wetter geological age. This is water in the bank. Once we spend this water, it is gone. Only a small increase in temperature could cause the loss of this stored water. With higher temperatures projected to occur as a result of climate change, glaciers will disappear and standing fossil water in northern lakes will evaporate. As this happens--as it is bound to--the hydrology of the entire country will change.
What this suggests is that, in southern Canada, we do not have as much water as we may have thought. In fact, if we examine how much water we have where most of us live we discover that we have about one tenth of the volume widely thought to exist in the public imagination. If the Americans want our water, they will have to go to the same place we will have to go if we want more, the Canadian North. And that will be very costly, as diverting water from northern rivers will, besides causing potentially disastrous environmental impacts, require pumping the water uphill.
John Sprague and the other authors of Eau Canada argue that the first thing we need to do in developing national water policy is dispel the myth of limitless abundance of water in this country. If we don't, we will make policy decisions based on false assumptions of abundance that could have huge ecological, economic and political consequences.
Although the book covers the broadest range of water policy issues in Canada, among the most topical today are the chapters relating to our relationship with our American neighbours. A great deal has been written about the history and function of the International Joint Commission. The relationship between Canada and the U.S. has been defined for almost a century by the Boundary Waters Treaty, which was signed between the two countries in 1909. This treaty addresses a broad range of transboundary water issues including definitions of boundary and transboundary surface waters and the joint study of these waters with reference to their potential use. The treaty establishes mechanisms for the approval of certain uses and permission for obstruction or diversion of transboundary waters that may affect flow volumes in either country. The treaty is widely considered to be an exemplary model of an international transboundary agreement. In the chapter entitled "Thirsty Neighbours: A Century of Canada-U.S. Transboundary Water Governance," water policy scholar Ralph Pentland and former IJC commissioner Adele Hurley contend that there are many Canadian water policy experts who doubt that Canada could negotiate as favourable an agreement as the Boundary Waters Treaty in today's political climate.
Beyond establishing rules for transboundary water management, the treaty also created a means for resolving disputes in the form of the IJC. The IJC performs two essential functions. It approves remedial or protective works, obstructions or dams on transboundary waters and sets terms and conditions for the operation of such works. It also investigates and makes recommendations on questions relating to operating rules or disputes that are referred to it by either or both governments. The key point here is that the IJC has to be invited by one or both federal governments to investigate disputes and to collaborate with conflicting parties in the interest of creating durable solutions to transboundary water issues.
While the IJC has enjoyed legendary success in the resolution of such issues, concerns have been growing over its current effectiveness. There is no one reason for this. The biggest reason for the decline in effectiveness of the IJC, however, may reside in the fact that neither the Canadian nor the American government supports it--and utilizes it--to the extent they once did. Put simply, important transboundary water issues are not referred to the IJC to be resolved. Instead of relying upon historically successful institutional approaches to dispute resolution, the federal governments in both Canada and the U.S. are choosing to address these issues in the political domain. Pentland and Hurley state it simply: the IJC can only be as successful as American and Canadian governments want it to be. When one or both federal governments are disinclined to cooperate on transboundary water issues then the IJC is sidelined. The cases in which the IJC has not been invited to be involved are highly instructive for they demonstrate just how quickly the goodwill created through generations of cooperation can be lost. Eau Canada discusses two important examples, the matter of Devil's Lake and a dispute over water-borne contamination in the Columbia River.
Devil's Lake is located some 160 kilometres south of North Dakota's northern border with Manitoba. The lake's name is associated with the fact that this body of water has no natural outlet. Consequently, the lake has become increasingly contaminated as a result of human activities in the basin over the last century. The rising waters led to a proposal to create a diversion that would allow the lake to be drained into the nearby Sheyenne River, which flows northward into the Red River, which, in turn, flows into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. In 2002, the U.S. government requested that the matter of the diversion be referred to the IJC. The Canadian government, however, refused to allow the referral. Pentland and Hurley note that the justification the Canadian government offered was that environmental studies were not adequate at the time and that a "wait and see" approach to the problem would be more appropriate given the circumstances. The situation, however, worsened. The waters of Devil's Lake continued to rise, flooding some 30,000 hectares of farmland. Faced with what it perceived as an emergency, North Dakota unilaterally decided in 2004 to build the proposed diversion. The construction of the Devil's Lake diversion was completed in September of 2005. Opponents of the diversion cite article IV of the 1909 Boundary Water Treaty, which states that transboundary water flows "shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other." It has also been argued that if the issue had been referred to the IJC in the first place, the ultimate outcome would have been far more satisfactory to both countries.
Another watershed in contention is the Columbia River Basin where an issue of cross-border water pollution remains to be fully resolved. This dispute centres on the introduction of heavy metals into the Columbia River some 16 kilometres before the river crosses the international boundary into the state of Washington. The source of the heavy metals is an estimated 10 million tons of mining slag that was dumped into the river as a byproduct of decades of metal smelting that took place at a mining operation at Trail, British Columbia. The matter has not been referred to the IJC and the Canadian government has been unsuccessful in its attempt to resolve this issue through diplomatic channels.
In an essay entitled "Whose Water? Canadian Water Management and the Challenges of Jurisdictional Fragmentation," J. Owen Saunders and Michael Wenig argue that the case demonstrates that even with the Boundary Waters Treaty in place and the fine record of the IJC, there are obvious limits to the amount of cooperation between Canada and the U.S. on transboundary water issues. When referrals to the IJC are not forthcoming, the considerable resources--procedural and other--of this important institution are not brought to bear on transboundary issues, which can result in inferior solutions to these problems--and diminished neighbourly relations. In conclusion, Saunders and Wenig argue that, if we are not going to use the tools at hand, we need additional avenues of resolution if we are to meet emerging new circumstances in our relationship with our southern neighbours. That may well be true, but only if such avenues really are an improvement over the successful processes already defined by the Boundary Waters Treaty and established by the IJC.
Beyond the many lessons we can learn about transboundary water issues from Eau Canada, the book has much to teach us about where we stand relative to the rest of the world in terms of water management. Karen Bakker is right. Canada is not as advanced as we might like to believe in terms of public policy relating to water supply and quality assurance. There are issues of equity related to First Nations, inefficiencies associated with jurisdictional fragmentation of responsibility and accountability, an absence of reliable and commonly useful data, and widespread examples of inadequate foresight and management of water in the context of other forms of resource development. The country needs to move past its own myths of limitless water abundance to create a new national water ethic based on conservation and different formulae for valuing water as a resource in its own right. The most important lesson, however, may be that the longer our federal and provincial policy makers wait to change our water management frameworks, the more investment there will be in current systems and the more difficult it will become to make needed changes.
Is there a water crisis in Canada? Compared to other places in the world the answer is no. But in parts of Canada, especially in the water-scarce West, we have all the elements to create one. The authors of Eau Canada argue, quite rightly I think, that without more enlightened federal, provincial and municipal policy, that is exactly where we may be heading.
R.W. Sandford is the chair of the United Nations Water for Life partnership in Canada and the director of the University of Lethbridge's Western Watersheds Climate Research Collaborative. He is the author of Water, Weather and the Mountain West, published by Rocky Mountain Books in the fall of 2007. He lives in Canmore.
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|Title Annotation:||Eau Canada: The Future of Canada's Water|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2007|
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