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The Montreal Rundown

Posted on March 31, 2010

Phew. In just 1.5 days, expert panels at McGill University’s Canadian Water: Towards a New Strategy conference (March 25-26) managed to touch on practically every serious water issue Canada (and in some cases, the world) is facing today.

The structure of the sold-out event, which placed some 250 attendees in one room for its entirety and contained no breakout sessions, was actually very effective. Steadfast delegates who stayed for all presentations were able to compare content and apply questions from one panel to another, referencing and building on previous comments.

David Schindler’s keynote address was the undeniable highlight of the conference, far surpassing Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s 25-minute pep talk about federal action on water. “If you’re not protecting the watershed, you’re not protecting water,” said Schindler, whose talk was referenced by most panelists during the remainder of the event.

Now, it’d be insane to recount everything (dedicated insomniacs may catch the conference proceedings on CPAC—the entire event was taped for broadcast), but here are some of the themes discussed over those two days.

Climate change
People are still talking about Copenhagen’s big water misstep—that is, not including it in the official agenda. Zafar Adeel, director of UNU-INWEH, told audience members that climate change is “all about water,” and that the international delegation missed the boat.

McGill professor Peter Brown felt similarly. In a Canadian Press article in response to Prentice’s address, which discussed Canada’s efforts to clean up lakes and rivers, Brown said the government is failing to protect Canadian water bodies from climate change—a much bigger threat.

Brown warned that climate change will boost the frequency of powerful storms, leading to increased run-off from farms and streets into lakes and rivers. He also warned that algae blooms caused by run-off carrying agricultural fertilizers are choking water bodies like Lake Winnipeg and Lake Erie.

Bulk water exports
More than once, panelists blamed media outlets for spreading fear on this topic, and I had to agree. For mainstream media, at least, the concept is a goldmine—a sensational topic to raise blood pressure and sell papers. Most experts agreed that bulk water exports were out of the question. Economically speaking, not to mention in our increasing carbon-aware society, exports make little-to-no sense.

Doug Miller, chairman of GlobeScan International, suggested that countries should husband their resources rather than export, and several presenters, including UBC professor Hans Schreier, backed this statement by advocating conservation, reuse, and working within means.

Besides, said presenter Margaret Catley-Carlson, a self-described water patron with no “-ist” background, “We already export oodles of water! It’s called virtual water.”

Water wars
Addressing water myths over at the concurrent GLOBE 2010 conference in Vancouver, GHD’s Nick Apostolidis brought up the idea that the next war will be over water. His answer? “It’s cheaper to desalinate.”

It’s probably cheaper to make an agreement, too. Back at McGill, Adeel supported the notion that water wars are not likely, citing cooperative agreements between countries in conflict, such 1960’s Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India, and more recent examples such as Israel and Jordan’s negotiations. Catley-Carlson agreed: “Countries will not have conflict over water if they have an agreement,” she said. “But [some] hotspots don’t have good inter-country relationships.”

National leadership
“Canadians are ahead of their legislators on the issue of water,” said Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, as he opened Day Two. A Policy Options poll had conservation and pollution at the top of the list of public concerns, he said.

Karen Bakker of the Program on Water Governance thought Nanos made an understatement. “Canada has the weakest water governance framework in the developed world,” she said, pointedly. “We can’t be complacent.”

It’s safe to say that the conference produced a resounding call for leadership. But who is that leader? During the question period for the Water Reality Check panel, Liberal water critic Francis Scarpaleggia stepped forward to propose that the federal government institute a junior water minister—a “champion”—under the Environment Minister. Panelist Christopher Hilkene, chair of NRTEE’s water program, agreed, but added that the plan would succeed only with inter-ministerial coordination and the appropriate budget.

When asked who might lead the water governance revolution, Rob de Loë, Canadian research chair in water policy and governance, said “I think that someone is us. We have to integrate water into day-to-day decision-making, and make water part of our business.”

“The stars are aligning,” said de Loë, with reference to the resurgence in water policy action. “There are new actors, but they’re all motivated by different values. This is a governance challenge, and no government can enact a national strategy alone.”

Building morale is one thing, but it doesn’t change the current state of Canadian water governance. It was clear that some experts were not convinced of Canada’s ability to lead itself, let alone the global water market. “We are not leaders in water,” said Bob Sandford, chair of the United Nations Water for Life Decade. Even in the best possible situation, he advised, “consensus will not be achievable on all levels.” Echoing previous panelists, Sandford explained that a national water strategy could never cater to all stakeholders completely—but that’s the nature of compromise.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Attendees also witnessed and participated in lively discussions on full-cost pricing, contamination, Aboriginal water rights, and economic accountability. Grouping the entire delegation into one conference (rather than having many tracks and breakouts) lent itself to the overarching theme: integration, a word heavily-used by most (if not all) presenters.

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