Most Canadians think of World Water Day as just another international event on the calendar — when water becomes newsworthy for one day in March, on the 22nd.
Yet we would be hard-pressed to go without water for just a few hours, let alone one whole day. Depriving ourselves of water even for a short period of time would demonstrate to Canadians just how much we take our water for granted.
In the week ahead, there are many global, national and local events organized to discuss and take action related to water. The 8th World Water Forum, held this week in Brazil (the country with the most fresh water in the world) is the world’s largest conference on water, attracting more than 40,000 representatives from governments, NGOs and companies.
At the forum, the United Nations will launch the new International Decade for Action on Water (2018-2028) and release its annual World Water Report. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will also release its new Water Governance Indicators based on 12 Water Governance Principles.
These indicators will allow jurisdictions like Canada to gauge how well they are adapting their policies and governance systems to new realities and challenges.
Meeting our water challenges
The emphasis at these forums is on the need for innovation and investment in the water sector, water science, water technology and water infrastructure — the hard services required to meet our water challenges and cope with crises like drought, flooding and pollution.
These are important investments that will yield a significant return on investment in coming decades. However, what the OECD and UN have been increasingly emphasizing is the need for dialogue and action on water governance — to focus on changing water behaviours and decisions.
Indeed, even countries with an abundance of freshwater like Brazil and Canada will face significant water challenges in the coming decades. As drought, flooding and pollution across the globe and in communities across Canada has shown, water governance challenges are increasing in contexts of both abundance and scarcity.
In Canada, we have some very serious water challenges in Indigenous communities, new and enduring water pollution in many of our lakes, rivers and aquifers and aging infrastructure at a time when populations are urbanizing.
Evidence of water crises in Canada and water infrastructure needs have touched many Canadian communities, and surveys in the past 10 years indicate that Canadians consistently rank water as our most valuable natural resource. Yet our policies, decisions and conduct do not reflect the significance of water to our society and economy.
The need for water ‘thinkers’
In addition to improving our water policies and adapting our water governance institutions, Canada needs to place more emphasis on its future water thinkers, leaders and practitioners.
Investments in hard services and water infrastructure are very important. However, to be creative and innovative with these investments we need new approaches. New approaches come from investing in people focused on the social, economic and political challenges we increasingly face in governing our waters.
One such approach is encouraging governments, the private sector, NGOs and educational institutions to invest in Canada’s future water leaders – and the Geoffrey Bruce Fellowships in Canadian Freshwater Policy is a great example.
The fellowships were established in 2017, by Erika Bruce, to honour her late husband’s efforts to champion local and global efforts to protect Canada’s freshwater resources. They provide funding to encourage Canada’s best young minds to help improve water governance — at the local, national and international levels.
Katherine Minich and Edgardo Tovilla are the inaugural recipients of the fellowships at Ryerson University.
Minich, who is an Inuk PhD student in policy studies, is focusing her doctoral research on how traditional knowledge can be the foundation of new water governance approaches in Canada’s northern and Indigenous communities.
Tovilla, a PhD student in Ryerson’s environmental and applied science and management program, is examining how water and wastewater policies and management in Ontario can be integrated using a “One Water” approach at the municipal level.
The Bruce Fellowship program hopes to encourage and fund Canada’s future leaders to focus on freshwater policy and governance.
World Water Day reminds us that Canada’s next generation of water leaders must be able to understand complex governance challenges and make value-based decisions based on a new water ethic — a water ethic that Indigenous peoples and other jurisdictions have much to teach us.