Underground River: Collaborating for Canadian Water Futures

Collaboration gets talked about a lot in CSR: companies with NGOs, companies with companies, cross-sectoral innovations. When it comes to managing a resource like water that flows over every human-made boundary, we really need collaboration—a lot. Awareness of water issues is growing in Canada. Only a few examples: coastal areas need to prepare for future rising sea levels due to climate change, some of Canada’s water infrastructure needs expensive updating1 and a recent study confirmed oil sands pollutants in surrounding lakes. According to experts, true collaboration for water sustainability involves pretty much everyone: young Canadians, families, indigenous people, rural and urban communities, industry and government, as well as cross-border cooperation with international experts in the north and south. Water advocates were speaking at Building Successful Cooperation Across Boundaries, an event hosted by the Canadian Water Resources Association, Blue Drinks and Water Canada magazine, and moderated by former Toronto mayor David Miller. Sarah Dickin, Young Professional Water Ambassador (IWW 2013) says we need cooperation across generational boundaries, engaging young water professionals, students and emerging water stakeholders with the established profession. The replacement cost for drinking-water infrastructure rated “fair” or “poor” in Canada is estimated at 25.9B2. This is only one indication that the water industry will need a few new experts going forward. “We are dealing with the largest group of young people the world has even known. How can Canada share knowledge across this boundary?” said Dickin. She pointed to “water appathons” as one way young water experts are contributing tools for water and sanitation management. John Jackson, of Great Lakes United has seen cooperation in coalitions lead to amazing results. A routine and low impact water permit approval in Northern Ontario in the late 1980s to take water from Lake Superior to Asian markets ended up causing a furor at the time. It became a catalyst for a coalition that included Great Lakes states, Ontario, Quebec, industry, citizens, First Nations communities and environmental groups that eventually led to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. “This was an example of citizens groups, First Nations groups, industry all talking together . . . finding out we had an amazing amount in common as we talked it through and really having a dramatic impact,” said Jackson. Larry McDermott, of Plenty Canada, former rural mayor and member of the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation points to cross-cultural cooperation and embracing First Nations spirituality and traditional connection with water. “Indigenous culture and knowlededge . . . comes from living thousands of years on this land . . . it’s a knowledge that is available to us all,” said McDermott. “When it comes to making management decisions, we are pretty slow to seize the opportunity that come from embracing indigenous culture,” but protecting the land is a shared responsibility. The indigenous-led Idle No More movement in Canada has raised the profile of that joint responsibility for our resources. “In order to collaborate I need to listen,” says Harry Switzman of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, talking about watershed cooperation. “There may be an acrimonious relationship with some groups...but the important part is that we are reaching out to these groups and including them in the process. I could have just from my desk, called a few people I was friendly and chummy with and made it work, but it requires dedication, it requires resources and you have to be prepared to step out and take those risks . . . . Collaboration is messy. On the watershed scale, its iterative, constantly evolving and never static.” Engaging local individuals means making it easy for them and going out to where they are, whether in their homes, farms, or community gardens or as Dickin said she’s done in the past, even water aerobics classes. There was mention of people wanting a national “ministry of water” to bring stronger federal leadership, but with federal capacity actually shrinking3, collaboration seems to be the best way forward. “There are many initiatives that bring people across country together. They are not as formal . . . . We are working together and working internationally,” according to Switzman. Sources 1 & 2 http://www.fcm.ca/Documents/reports/Canadian_Infrastructure_Report_Card_... 3 Pentland, R. (2012). National Water Capacity Declines Sharply as Water Issues Intensify. FlowMonitor: Canadian Water Policy Watch, (5).