Water: Preserving a precious commodity 

To mark World Water Day (March 22), Bioresource Engineering Professor Chandra Madramootoo looks at the state of the global water supply and challenges facing Canadian water management
Chandra Madramootoo, P. Eng., is a James McGill Professor in the Department of Bioresource Engineering

Established by the United Nations in 1993, World Water Day – held annually on March 22 – is a day dedicated to celebrating the importance of water and its management and preservation, while concurrently raising awareness of the planet’s water crisis and bringing attention to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

McGill Bioresource Engineering Professor Chandra Madramootoo – a member of the steering committee of the Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture – expands on the theme of this year’s World Water Day: Valuing Water, and describes the goals of the federal government’s Canada Water Agency, which is in the process of being created. He is contributing to this effort.  

This year’s World Water Day theme was Valuing Water – how exactly is the value of water determined?

Madramootoo: The 2021 World Water Assessment Report issued as part of World Water Day emphasizes the importance of expressing water’s worth and using it to make decisions toward the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Report also points out that “failure to fully value water in all its different uses is considered a root cause, or a symptom, of the political neglect of water and its mismanagement.” As such, if we want to improve water resources management, we need to start exploring new methodologies and examine water’s value from governance, social, cultural and economic standpoints.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our ability to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for water?

Unfortunately, yes. The same Report noted that some of the world’s most vulnerable people, those who live in slums and informal settlements, have been the hardest hit by this pandemic. SDG #6 – achieving universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation – is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19, but the goal will not be achieved by 2030 as targeted.

Globally, over three billion people and two out of five health care facilities lack adequate access to hand hygiene facilities. Water (and sanitation) is an essential social service, and will no doubt have to be subsidized if there is to be any progress with SDG #6.

How does the state of our global water supply impact food security, and how does that speak to its value? 

In terms of agriculture, the world’s irrigated area of some 300 million hectares produces 40 per cent of the world’s food. Irrigated agriculture is therefore crucial for global food security.

Agriculture uses about 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals, however water for food production needs to be better valued considering the many direct and indirect benefits it provides, including its contribution to rural prosperity, nutrition, employment, value-chain addition, maintaining stable food supplies and reducing food price volatility. The agricultural sector could also benefit if the multiple uses of water – particularly when it’s linked to environmental protection – are valued. This includes implementing riparian buffer strips, conservation of wetlands, and planting crops which improve soil and water quality, and reduce water use in agriculture. These kinds of societal benefits need to be acknowledged as part of agricultural water valuation.

How is water managed in Canada? What are some of the biggest challenges?

In Canada, water governance is complex, and the resource is very multidisciplinary, covering several domains including natural resources, mining, environment, agriculture, health, climate, energy and fisheries, for example.

Constitutionally, water falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories, but the federal government has jurisdiction over transboundary and international waters and over water supplies within First Nations communities. To further complicate things, multiple federal and provincial departments are charged with administering water-related policies and programs, while municipalities manage water supply and wastewater infrastructure at the local level. These factors combined make it extremely difficult to take a coherent and unified approach to water management and can lead to conflict among water users.

Since the passing of the Canada Water Act in 1970, we have observed numerous stressors to the water system, including degradation of water quality, irreparable damage to freshwater biota, extreme floods and droughts due to climate change, diseases and contaminants in drinking water, and deplorable water and sanitation conditions among First Nations communities, to name a few.

How and why was the Canada Water Agency established and what was your role?

The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada in collaboration with the Minister of Agriculture of Agri-Food Canada were mandated by the Prime Minister to establish a Canada Water Agency to respond to the need for better coordination and the urgency of finding solutions to the problems outlined above. The federal government held a series of consultations with stakeholders over 3 months to guide the framework for the establishment of the Canada Water Agency. My role was first to serve on a panel which reviewed the Peter Pearse 1985 report on Federal Water Policy, which was the starting point, and then to lead the consultation on Agriculture and Fresh water this past January.

What kind of goals does the Canada Water Agency hope to achieve?

The Agency’s overall goal is to modernize Canada’s water legislation and, working alongside provinces and territories, create a national agency that can propose innovative approaches to water governance and apply the latest integrative science for a more resilient water resource.  It’s also a unique opportunity to advance reconciliation efforts with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, for whom water is a sacred endowment.

One of the opportunities discussed was the collaboration to advance regionally adapted freshwater management strategies, such as addressing shared water management priorities in the Canadian Prairies. This is now well underway with the announcement that the federal and Saskatchewan governments will invest $4 billion to expand irrigation infrastructure in the province. Meanwhile, Alberta will also put $815 million toward infrastructure improvements and the development of additional off-stream water storage.

These are enormous investments and the largest ever made in recent decades toward water and food security in Canada. It’s just one of the many areas in which the Canada Water Agency will provide leadership both nationally and internationally.