New Canada Water Agency to provide solutions for emerging water crisis—expert panel

The new Canada Water Agency—a mandated commitment of the federal government—will provide much-needed solutions to the emerging water crisis, according to Tom Axworthy, chair of a national water policy panel organized by Global Water Futures (GWF) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). 

“The pandemic has shown us what is possible when we work together to protect the health of Canadians,” said Axworthy, public policy chair at Toronto’s Massey College and former principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  

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“Similarly, we need to work together to address water security challenges that have been underscored by climate change impacts in communities across Canada. Water-related natural disasters such as floods and fires have cost Canadians $28 billion between 2000 and 2017 alone.”  

In mandate letters last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on the ministers of the departments of Environment and Climate Change and Agriculture and Agri-Food to create the new agency to “work together with the provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, local authorities, scientists, and others to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean and well-managed.”  

Axworthy noted that the focus on co-operative federalism in the Canadian constitution—from the British North America Act to its current form—has paved the way for a Canada Water Agency, which he said is critically important in the face of water security challenges that transcend national boundaries. 

He pointed out that the multi-faceted issue of water security is spread out across more 20 departments in the federal government alone. The Canada Water Agency, he said, could begin to address this siloed approach “to protect and manage our freshwater for generations to come.” 

The May 13 online national panel discussion, involving more than 650 scientists and water management professionals, marked the start of a series of national and regional discussions though the USask-led Global Water Futures program. Recommendations from these consultations are expected to inform the development of the new agency.  

For the forum, GWF scientists with the USask Global Institute for Water Security, along with the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) and other partners across the country, released a draft paper Modernizing Federal Freshwater Leadership which urges the new agency to mobilize data and knowledge to monitor, predict and solve water problems; strengthen transboundary water management; strengthen reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; and improve collaborative river basin planning.  

“Climate change is like going down some pretty terrifying rapids, and it’s going to take expert canoeing to get through this,” said panelist and GWF director John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Water Resources at USask.  

Noting that Canada is the only G7 country without a national flood forecasting system, he said the new national water agency is urgently needed to deal with Canada’s changing hydrology and the impacts of climate change.  

“The implications for communities and economies are dire,” said Pomeroy. “A modern, innovative, forward-thinking, and collaboratively developed water science and governance institution is needed to retain and restore the security of Canada’s water and position Canada as a water and climate leader on the global stage.”  

For Merrell-Ann Phare, a panelist with expertise in water law and governance, the creation of a Canada Water Agency is an opportunity to achieve a national water vision in partnership with Indigenous people.  

“I hear from many Indigenous governments a high level of frustration that they are frequently excluded from having a decision-making role regarding water governance in Canada,” said Phare, lawyer and executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources.  

“Drinking water for Indigenous communities is a perfect example. Water sources are often off reserve lands, in places where Indigenous jurisdictions in source water protection are not recognized.”  

Phare believes the Canada Water Agency, if co-designed and developed with Indigenous governments, could be transformational “not only in water governance, but in truth and reconciliation.”  

Terry Duguid, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg South and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, announced a new engagement web portal as part of the federal government’s virtual consultation process, encouraging the public to help shape the new institution’s mandate, role, form, and legislation and policy reform needs.   

Background on Water Governance in Canada: 

The issue of water governance in Canada can be traced back to 1868 when The Fisheries Act—one of the first pieces of legislation ever written in the country—included language such as that “the salmon not be poisoned by chemicals,” which speaks directly to the quality and protection of Canada’s water.  

More than 100 years later, The Canada Water Act of 1970 stated goal was to “provide the framework for co-operation with the provinces and territories in the conservation, development and use of Canada's water resources.” It also included work done under the act to safeguard the water quality and quantity of Canada’s watersheds.  

Canada’s primary freshwater legislation has not been updated since The Canada Water Act’s proclamation in 1970.  

For more information on the National Water Policy Panel, visit: https://gwf.usask.ca/events-meetings/past-events/nwpp-2020.php 

For more information about Global Water Futures, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, visit: https://gwf.usask.ca/index.php

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