Environment Minister delivers water reality check

Environment Minister Jim Prentice speaks to reporters following his keynote. / Photo: Owen Egan
Environment Minister Jim Prentice speaks to reporters following his keynote. / Photo: Owen Egan

Prentice gives keynote at annual MISC conference

By Pascal Zamprelli

“What better time to discuss Canadian water,” asked Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice as he addressed the packed Faculty Club, “because water will become a key issue for decision makers, and it deserves to be near the top of the policy agenda.”

And what better place than in Montreal, he continued, on the St. Lawrence, “the river that gave Canada its destiny” and “reminds us of the importance of freshwater to our history, our culture, our economy.”

Prentice was at the University Friday to deliver the keynote address at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s (MISC’s) 2010 conference, Canadian Water: Towards a New Strategy, which he called a “good opportunity to meet some of Canada’s outstanding researchers working on environmental issues—from policy to law to science.”

And he was right. The conference drew practitioners, academics, and decision-makers to address the issues surrounding water that may very well come to dominate economic and environmental debate in the coming decades, at home and abroad: what the future holds for the world’s water supply, whether water should be characterized as a public or an economic good, the need for coherence between domestic and international water regimes, and the roles various stakeholders – government, business, civil society, media – might play.

In his address, Prentice went on to describe one area where Canada can make a significant contribution to the issues surrounding water usage, that being the treatment of wastewater.

“We Canadians like to think of ourselves as responsible stewards of nature and of our water resources,” he said. “And yet poorly treated wastewater continues to be a serious problem in our lakes and rivers.”

He outlined parts of the infrastructure stimulus fund dedicated to wastewater projects across Canada and pointed to a very recent announcement that Wastewater Systems Regulations would be finalized by year’s end, after much consultation between all levels of government.

Prentice also attacked what he calls “the myth of abundant water” in Canada, noting that renewable water does not include the water locked in glaciers or most of the water in our underground aquifers. “Yes, it is true that Canada has vast water resources—but there is a mismatch between where the water is, and where it is needed. Today, there are regions in Canada that go through water shortages,” he said. “The demands for water use continue to increase, and yet we cannot increase our consumption without depleting the resource—living off our water interest, and not dipping into our water capital, as it were. [Water] is a precious resource. We cannot squander it.”

None of the people gathered for the conference would dispute that last point. Above and beyond the Canadian reality, attendees learned from experts that some one billion people on Earth are without safe, clean water, while 2.6 billion have no access to sanitation.

“I am extremely happy with the quality of discussion that occurred here over the past few days,” said Antonia Maioni, Director of the MISC and conference co-chair. “As the speakers demonstrated one after another, the issues surrounding effective water management in Canada are challenging.”

In his final remarks, conference co-chair Bob Slater, of Carleton’s School of Public Policy and Public Administration, argued that both vision and action are necessary as Canada moves towards a new water strategy. “I hope the legacy of this conference is that we helped move the dialogue in a new direction,” he said.