Ensuring the future sustainability of B.C.’s fresh water resources will take a strong grassroots effort supported by the collaborative leadership of all levels of government. That was the message from Oliver Brandes on Monday evening at Kelowna’s Rotary Centre for the Arts, speaking as part of the UBC Distinguished Speakers Series.
“Ninety-eight per cent of people in B.C. believe fresh water is critical to their well-being,” said Brandes, the associate director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria. “Communities are increasingly concerned about health, the protection of their drinking water supplies and the function of their watersheds. To address this issue, the government has started on a new approach to water strategy. But there is still a long way to go.”
Brandes’ presentation, titled Thinking like a watershed: the future of water law and governance in B.C. and beyond, identified a number of the trends and challenges ahead regarding the management-law and governance of water.
He notes that a significant challenge for Canada is the number of partners involved in water governance.
“Four levels of government are involved — federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations,” said Brandes. “This creates complexity. Each level has very significant roles and significant needs. This creates a challenge of politics, sharing and overlapping responsibility.
“In Canada, the provinces hold the bulk of power. And the role of federal government is clearly articulated but, largely due to political reasons, we see a gun-shy, pass-the-buck mentality, often described by researchers as the ‘gagster’ motto — nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.”
But there is good news.
“We have seen a recent emphasis on collaborative approaches and partnerships; we’ve seen trends towards increasing sharing of responsibility and authority,” said Brandes, adding that Canada is also in a good position to watch how other countries — such as South Africa, Australia, parts of Brazil and the southern U.S. — have been managing their significant water issues over the past 10 to 15 years.
Brandes also presented some ideas that could begin the transition in B.C. toward a more ecologically sustainable water future, and the opportunities associated with the emerging concepts of the Soft Path for Water, the Public Trust Doctrine and Watershed Governance — three themes that combine to create a comprehensive approach to water sustainability.
- The Soft Path for Water — promotes local public participation to ensure sustainability of water resources. The focus is on designing and implementing policies and strategies today that will meet new water demand through more efficient use of existing supplies, reducing or even eliminating the need for further supply-side developments.
- Public Trust Doctrine — an understanding that certain natural resources — especially air, freshwater and oceans — are central to our very existence; and that governments must exercise a continuing duty to sustain the essence of those resources for the long-term use and enjoyment of the entire populace.
- Watershed Governance — a manifestation of ecological governance as it relates to water. It includes the institutional and legal shift toward ecologically-based water allocations, ecosystem-based land- and water-use decisions, comprehensive demand management and soft path approaches. Watershed governance can help guide Canada’s senior governments in their efforts to develop water sustainability through institutional, legal and governance reform.
“Science has shown that it is critically important to be able to tackle the inevitable conflict that comes with scarcity,” said Brandes. “Governance alone cannot correct inadequate water management, but poor governance will almost certainly prevent water management. So we need to get it right.”
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