Sandford: Canada's Cold Amazon
With the support of the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy recently spent three days deliberating on the eco-hydrological significance of the Mackenzie River Basin to Canada and the rest of the world.
It is hoped that its findings will inform the current negotiations of agreements between British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories over the future of Canada’s largest river system.
What’s at stake? The ultimate state of one of the world’s most important northern rivers; a river system that has been scientifically described as being a lynch-pin of water-ice-climate interactions that create relative climatic stability not just in southern Canada but throughout the world.
Concern over the Mackenzie system has been growing as climate change effects accelerate in northern Canada. Canada’s Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the country. Negotiations between Alberta and the Northwest Territories regarding the future management of the 1.8 million square kilometer basin were initiated after the Northwest Territories began implementing its Northern Voices, Northern Waters (pdf) water stewardship strategy in 2011.
This plan has been viewed by many water policy experts as a groundbreaking reaction to the rapid changes being brought about by the effects warming temperatures are having on how rapidly and intensely water has begun to move through the global hydrological cycle.
In 2008, the Government of the Northwest Territories invited the University of California-based Rosenberg Forum to offer observations from international experts on elements of its water strategy and to provide advice in support of its successful implementation.
In a forum held at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver between September 5 and 8, the forum brought together a combination of experts from around the globe to examine the scientific and legal principles that might be brought to bear in the crafting of a transboundary agreement that would benefit all the riparian jurisdictions that share the Mackenzie over the coming decades.
In addition to internationally respected hydrologists and aquatic ecologists, the Rosenberg panel was composed of legal scholars from Canada and abroad: experts in Aboriginal law and policy, political scientists and resource economists.
The statement of task required that panelists consider five key questions regarding transboundary relations between riparian neighbours on the Mackenzie system.
They explored the current state of scientific knowledge in the basin and identified the major scientific questions that need to be addressed to ensure that the waters and lands of the basin are managed in a way that protects their integrity.
The panel also heard evidence regarding the extent to which indigenous knowledge might be made to supplement or reinforce western science and the social sciences in the basin.
The panel also concentrated its efforts on defining the role of adaptive management in scoping and implementing any transboundary agreement in the face of the levels of uncertainty created by rapid warming especially in the northern part of the basin.
The panel went on to thoroughly examine the strengths and weaknesses of existing cooperative governance structures so as to determine how to strengthen existing relationships between riparian neighbours now and in the future.
Finally, the panel explored whether reformed governance structures might be required to ensure levels of cooperation between riparian neighbours that would make adaptive management of the basin more successful over time.
It is important to note that presentations made to the panel by two of Canada’s most respected experts on the Mackenzie system both confirmed the global significance of the basin in terms of its moderating effect on the temperatures of the rest of the continent; the extent and nature of its estuary; and the hydrological influence of its flows into the Arctic Ocean. That the management of the Mackenzie system is a matter of great concern to the rest of the world may be gauged from the extent of national and international media coverage the forum received both before and after the deliberations began.
News of the forum, including interviews with the Premier of the Northwest Territories, Bob McLeod, who addressed the panel at the outset of deliberations, appeared around the world and in newspapers in provincial capitals across Canada.
The outcomes of the deliberations of the Rosenberg Panel are presently being incorporated into a formal report that will be released through the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation in January 2013.
So why is this important to Canadians? It’s an opportunity to show the world how to employ science and enlightened legal principles to break out of the prisons of treaties that no longer respond to the realities that are emerging as the global hydrological cycle responds to a rapidly warming atmosphere.
It is an opportunity to craft an agreement that will serve the future needs of, not just the NWT, but all of the jurisdictions that share the Mackenzie Basin. The world will be watching as this treaty is crafted. Canadians should be watching also.
Bob Sandford is the EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade and a member of Canada’s Forum for Leadership on Water. Bob is also a regular contributor to Water Canada.