Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance: Briefing Paper for Decision-Makers

Submitted by Caroline Lumosi | published 22nd Apr 2014 | last updated 26th Sep 2014

Briefing for Decision Makers

In most parts of Canada, climate change is increasingly affecting the way water moves through the hydrologic cycle, which up until now has fluctuated within a fixed envelope of certainty. This relatively stable regime is termed ‘stationarity’ by hydrologists. The hydro-climatic conditions that are emerging in response to climate change are increasingly outside this established range to which Canadians have demonstrated an ability to adapt over the last century.

We are beginning to experience increasingly frequent, deeper and more persistent droughts. Simultaneously, we are beginning to experience the same intense rainfall and flooding events that are becoming more common all over the world.

According to climate models, this variability is likely to become greater in the future, which will result in extensive and costly on-going damage, not just to public infrastructure such as roads, bridges and water treatment plants, but to our entire built environment. The fear is that the cost of this ongoing damage may in time be substantial enough to make it difficult to sustain prosperity as we know it today and still keep our cities, towns, national transportation systems and other crucial infrastructure in functional repair.

The economic costs are already clear and rising. The insurance industry is already warning us of these concerns. In August of 2011, the Insurance Bureau of Canada observed that the number and severity of storms is having a negative effect on the industry and that insurers are particularly worried about the rapidly increasing rate of water-damage claims. An industry spokesman reported that, while historically most insurance claims were related to fire and theft, half of every dollar now paid out by insurance companies is for water damage related to extreme weather events. The industry is lobbying governments to invest in infrastructure, including improving sewer systems, to prevent future worsening of the problem.

Warming temperatures will affect water quality widely in Canada especially in areas dominated by lakes and large rivers. Canada’s Arctic will be particularly affected. In some areas, changes in hydrological patterns will also affect water security, including southern British Columbia and much of the prairies. This does not mean water security issues won’t appear elsewhere. Serious water conservation measures must be put into place immediately to reduce the risk of water scarcity, and additional measures such as those described in this document’s recommendations need to be considered to ensure that water quality and allocation issues related to reduced supply can be effectively managed.

Climate change is becoming a risk-multiplier that will test fundamental Canadian ideals related to the social contract that promises citizens peace, order and good government. The primary response to climate change in Canada thus far has focused principally on mitigating impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While such action is crucial, it is also inadequate by itself. Current and projected atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are substantial enough to mean that further climate change will occur, and indeed is already occurring, regardless of our success in reducing emissions. Therefore, it is important to couple our efforts to mitigate the cause of the problem—in the case of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions—with efforts to adapt to the current and anticipated effects of climate change. As water is an essential resource in all aspects of life, social, economic and environmental, one of the most crucial ways to adapt to the growing number of negative consequences and costly feedbacks associated with climate change is to manage water effectively.

Because there is less confusion and debate in Canada about the importance of water than many other resources, the affirmation of a new “water ethic” could be a means of ultimately achieving greater adaptive capacity to climate change, while generating a great many other lasting social, economic and environmental benefits along the way. This, however, will require new governance structures that break down existing jurisdictional fragmentation and institutional territoriality. The breaking down and reformation of governance related to the management of water will, in itself, require a high degree of committed and effective collaboration among jurisdictions.

During the research carried out for the development of this report, however, the authors heard from coast to coast to coast that, even in the face of clear and obvious climate change threats, planners and government bureaucrats are too financially strapped and lack human resource capacity at the levels at which they are working to undertake the kinds of deep reform required to manage water differently, and more effectively, than it is being managed now. Fears were expressed in all but one jurisdiction that we consulted that our country’s political structures and institutions are in fact incapable of dealing with such complex reforms, and that we are doomed as a nation to inferior approaches to adapting our water management practices to increasing climate change effects. Strong evidence from that one jurisdiction, however, suggests that, in fact, this may not be the case.

The federal, territorial and Aboriginal governments with jurisdiction over water in the Northwest Territories have recently demonstrated that there is nothing in the Canadian federalist political structure that makes the kinds of reform necessary to adapt successfully to climate change impossible. The Government of the Northwest Territories and its federal and local partners assumed timely, complete and proactive responsibility for broad community collaboration leading to the development of a new and fully integrated watershed-based territorial water stewardship strategy. In so doing, these three senior levels of government demonstrated that the legal powers are in the appropriate hands and the necessary policy avenues exist to make such changes in governance possible. What is required, however, is pro-active, well-informed, and visionary political leadership.

The Northwest Territories example suggests that the same strong, inspired political leadership applied at national and provincial levels could create the policy reforms necessary to achieve the level of adaptive capacity we need as a nation to respond to the climate impacts on water security that we expect to emerge in the coming decades. We should be cultivating that leadership – and public support for that leadership – now.

Effective governments prefer proposition to opposition. This report outlines a new national proposition on water that aims to strengthen Canada’s economy and assure its sustainability while at the same time enhancing our adaptive capacity in the face of growing climate impacts on our national identity and well being, and therefore our nation’s future.

Fortunately, Canadian consciousness of our overall good fortune in terms of water resources, and popular understanding of water issues, is growing. We also know from world example much of what needs to be done. Time is of the essence. Our changing climate and hydrology demand that we shift out of the coping zone of stationarity, and adapt to new circumstances.

The extent of adaptation that is likely to be demanded will require that a new set of values must underlie water governance in Canada in the future. The creation of a new water ethic in Canada that addresses this shift comprehensively can be achieved in a series of steps, as outlined in the recommendations summarized below.