Solutions for Canada’s Emerging Water Crisis

CWRA panel session explores how the federal government can provide leadership

Published On: June 26th, 2019

The annual Canadian Water Resources Association conference was held in June in Collingwood, Ontario. POLIS’ Oliver M. Brandes, along with Merrell-Ann Phare (Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources) and Tony Maas (Forum for Leadership on Water), spoke at one of the best attended concurrent sessions of the conference, which was moderated by POLIS’ Rosie Simms. The panel focused on water solutions for Canadians and the importance of modernizing the Canada Water Act (CWA).

Drawing on the recently released research report Water Security for Canadians: Solutions for Canada’s Emerging Water Crisis (2019), the session explored how the federal government can provide leadership and better exercise its jurisdiction to help prevent Canada’s emerging water crisis: Canadians can no longer be assured that their waters are abundant, safe and secure. As global temperatures continue to increase, glaciers melt, permafrost thaws, river flows become unpredictable, and lakes warm and fill with toxic algae. The rate at which water moves through the water cycle is accelerating, which is fundamentally changing weather and precipitation patterns.

The panellists offered historical context as well as a number of specific and achievable activities to position Canada as a global leader in water prediction, management, and sustainability.

Tony provided an overview of provincial and territorial water policies and an update on the status of the Canada Water Act. The CWA is the federal government’s primary freshwater legislation. It was passed in 1970, and modernizing this legislation is a critical element of moving toward a sustainable freshwater future in this country.

Oliver then provided a focused discussion around water jurisdiction in Canada, how to take an innovative and robust approach to protecting environmental flows and building an effective, modern approach to nested watershed governance, and, ultimately, how to make the federation work for water. Merrell-Ann wrapped up with a discussion on the priority and opportunity to address Indigenous water rights, and the leading example of current water management agreements in the Mackenzie Basin to demonstrate the art of “the possible.”

The panelists proposed that a modern CWA would offer a clear opportunity to strengthen the health and function of critical transboundary watersheds and protect the ecosystem services of Canada’s shared waters. An important starting point is through a more integrated approach to planning at the river basin level and requires all orders of government to work together. In particular, a meaningful federal role is required in four key areas:

  1. Creating and mobilizing the knowledge needed to predict and respond to water problems
  2. Strengthening transboundary water management and cooperative federalism
  3. Strengthening reconciliation with Indigenous peoples
  4. Improving collaborative river basin planning​

For more information, download Water Security for Canadians: Solutions for Canada’s Emerging Water Crisis (2019), co-published by Global Water Futures, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW), POLIS Water Sustainability Project, and United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.