Canada is known around the world for its pristine lakes and vast water resources, but in recent months devastating effects of drought have shown that water, and our dependence on it, is under threat. Even in 2020 – a year dominated by COVID-19 – floods, droughts, melting glaciers and lack of access to drinking water made headline news in Canada. The evidence is clear – we are facing a water-insecure future with our water resources increasingly vulnerable to contamination, urbanization, changing land uses and climate change. COVID-19 reminded us of the importance of water supplies for infection control, as well as of the gross inequities that exist within Canada and between countries.

Now is the time for the promised Canada Water Agency to become a reality. Canada stands on the edge of opportunity – an opportunity where federal co-ordination and leadership and shared nation-to-nation governance on water moves us toward managing Canada’s water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner. A Canada Water Agency will benefit people in ways beyond simply living in a water-secure country. It also represents an opportunity for investment as part of a post-pandemic recovery plan that extends to international trade and development.

The great pause and the great promise

Because we had no choice but to slow down during the pandemic, we have learned a great deal about ourselves and about the world. As current election platforms indicate (Liberal, NDP, Conservative, Green), the public supports environmental and water leadership in Canada just as it supports public health, but we are also a nation divided.

We are divided on energy policy, resource development and on appropriate solutions that balance environmental, economic and social needs. Though one would think that the challenges we face are enough for one generation, a new elephant has appeared in the room while we were distracted by the pandemic. We see now that we live in an era in which we will increasingly have to deal with simultaneous compound crises. Water – too much, too little, insufficient quality, or unreliable supplies – is one of the crises we will face.

According to the most recent State of the Climate report from the World Meteorological Organization, the number of people classified as living in crisis, emergency and famine conditions has increased to almost 135 million people in 55 countries. In 2020, 50 million people were doubly hit by both climate-related disasters and pandemic disruptions. COVID-19 exacerbated the effects of climate disruption along the entire food supply chain, increasing the cost of food and elevating levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. At the same time, the pandemic has slowed humanitarian responses and added complexities through the need to simultaneously control the spread of the disease. Development in much of the world has been set back by as much as 25 years.

If we don’t come up with solutions soon, it will mean perpetually living with compound risks in many parts of the world. If 2020 was any indication, the convergence of multiple adverse events will become the norm rather than the exception.

Valuing water

If in Canada we want to be ready for this new normal, the first thing we ought to recognize is that it is coming and to prepare for it. Severe weather events cost insurance companies $2.4 billion in insurance claims in 2020, the fourth-highest loss since the early 1980s, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. This excludes costs of uninsured damages and federal disaster assistance.

So how do we prepare? The United Nations World Water Development Report (2021) found that failure to fully value water in all its different uses and benefits is indicative of political neglect. Water has value as a commodity, for example its use for energy production, irrigation or manufacturing. Presently, it is all about monetization. We continue to pass on associated costs and negative consequences to others and to future generations as if they are some kind of gift. We are failing to account for all water’s uses, including in the function of ecosystems, in our decision-making.

The different values of water need to be reconciled, and the tradeoffs between them resolved and incorporated into systematic and inclusive planning and decision-making processes. What stands in the way of doing this is governance. In Canada, we are using 19th century governance structures to address 21st century water issues.

This is not an insurmountable problem. The Trudeau government has committed to improving freshwater management in Canada and establishing a Canada Water Agency. Through this agency, Canada can proactively address the kinds of new and intensifying water challenges that we have seen during the summer of 2021 and that demand new approaches to freshwater management for the rest of this century.

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Good models exist to help articulate the specific responsibilities of a Canada Water Agency. The EU Water Framework Directive has possibly become the best example of the development of effective 21st century national and transnational water policy.

A made-in-Canada approach will require what is already required in Europe – active, not passive, trust-building established through strong and durable interpersonal relations; the establishment and adoption of ambitious common goals and targets; clearly measurable results with meaningful consequences for non-compliance; and ongoing help for those who have trouble keeping up.

Fire in Dead Man’s Flats, Alberta. Credit: Joe Wells

Seizing a transformational moment

The federal government can carefully target existing expenditures and realize new efficiencies across federal departments with mandates for freshwater through the Canada Water Agency with co-ordinating mechanisms similar to those in place for public health.

Identifying water-related risks and vulnerabilities and enabling evidence-based water solutions can save Canada billions of dollars by preventing damage to infrastructure and ecosystems, reducing disaster payments and reducing the human suffering that results from water-related hazards such as floods, droughts and water-related diseases.

But what would this look like? People in Canada have demonstrated their ability to become COVID-literate. We must also become water-literate to ensure that our actions protect our water resources and the lives and livelihoods that depend on them. Federally, Canada needs to commit to harmonized national water policies and enhanced knowledge, information and data-sharing, especially in transboundary contexts. Governments, municipalities, communities and researchers must collect, analyze and share data and information to reduce inequities and realize Canada’s commitment to evidence-informed decision-making. Finally, Canada must update and co-create water legislation that is respectful and inclusive of Indigenous nations, starting with a renewed Canada Water Act. The current act came into force in 1970 and has seen little modification since. This leaves the legislation inadequate in terms of climate change adaptation, Indigenous Peoples’ water rights and innovation in water-related sectors.

Clearly, we need a paradigm shift and, viewed correctly, the UN’s sustainable development goals could bring about that shift. Canada can reinvent itself on the world stage by using what we know about treating and managing water as a vehicle for expanding trade, while at the same time using our expanding expertise in water governance across multiple federal, provincial and territorial ministries, and the example of successful nation-to-nation-to-nation engagement, as a means of fulfilling Canada’s diplomatic and international development objectives.

By linking the advancements in national co-operation on water and the goal of meeting 21st century challenges to water management with foreign policy objectives, the Canada Water Agency can help Canada establish a new and very positive national image abroad.

The UN’s second decade of action on the global water crisis – Water for Sustainable Development 2018-28 – has recognized the need to mobilize action to avoid the looming global water crisis and represents a commitment to accelerate achievement of water-related sustainable development goals. Canadian participation might be a perfect platform for announcing Canada’s bold new intentions and strengthening Canada’s 2030 Agenda National Strategy: Moving Forward Together.

We have all the pieces we need to redefine Canada as a water nation. All we need to do is assemble them differently.

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Corinne Schuster-Wallace
Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace is a water-health researcher at the University of Saskatchewan. She is associate director of the Global Water Futures program, a multi-university initiative established with a Canada First Research Excellence Fund grant.
Robert (Bob) Sandford
Robert (Bob) Sandford holds the Global Water Futures Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He is also senior advisor on water issues for the Interaction Council.

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