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The Canada Water Agency: Finally Creating the Conditions For 21st Century Water Policy in Canada?

Robert Sandford, Dr. Corrine Schuster-Wallace  |   Jan 2022

The members of the Forum for Leadership on Water, along with much of the active water community in Canada, have been pressing for years for the creation of a Canada Water Agency.


The goal? Strengthening shared decision-making and management of water in the face of accelerating climate change threats to the country’s water security and enhancing water management at the watershed scale in part through reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the creation and mobilization of local and traditional ways of knowing and caring.


The benefits? Long term sustainability, reduced risks and increased resilience, and a more equitable and productive future for all.


We have been close to witnessing the act of its creation several times - particularly in the past two years - but each time we get close efforts stall at the bureaucratic level of the federal government and we have to start the process all over again. Now, despite a federal financial commitment, we appear to be back there again.    


The advantages of creating a Canada Water Agency have been repeated again and again by a diverse set of water voices. The creation of the agency has been mentioned three times in Throne speeches. The Liberal and other platforms of the past two elections and the current Ministerial mandate letters confirm that the fulfillment of the promise to create such an agency is not only in National interest but could put Canada on course to become a world leader in the management and governance of water at a time of rapid changes in the behaviour of the global water cycle. More pragmatically, people, infrastructure, and our economy have been devastated by water-related disasters from coast to coast to coast over the past 12 months. So why is it taking so long to create this agency?


Certainly, the fragmentation of water responsibilities in various federal departments is a challenge. But that is no reason for the failure of senior bureaucrats in those different departments to imagine collaborative solutions to those challenges. No one denies that thoughtful creation of the Canada Water Agency and making plans to revisit the Canada Water Act once the agency is fully functional is a positive development. Unfortunately, however, the approach that continues to be taken in the design of the agency remains so fragmented that it appears to be little more than a half-hearted blueprint for a pseudo-agency, which is not what the country needs. All we have to do is look at what happened in British Columbia over the course 2021 to know that.


Despite platform promises and Throne speech acknowledgements, the federal government has yet to take the benefits that creating a Canada Water Agency could bestow on the country seriously. In the latest federal proposal, water quality monitoring which resides within the Meteorological Service of Canada, is not moving to the agency. Unfathomably, environmental prediction and floodplain mapping - arguably two vital functions of the new agency - are to remain in Natural Resources Canada. Given the urgent need for advancing accurate flood and drought prediction and forecasting that focus on equitable risk reduction, resilience-building, and timely warnings, the current proposed structure does not come even close to what this country needs to be able to respond to our changing water realities. With each passing day, we fall further and further behind and in so doing we fail ourselves and the world. There is still potential, however, to catch up quickly.


The rest of the world is taking the accelerating climate and related water crisis seriously. In 2018, UN member states committed to a Decade of Action on Water for Sustainable Development to accelerate progress towards water-related SDG targets. The Decade calls for sustainable development and integrated management of water resources for society, economy, environment, co-operation and partnership, and engagement of all stakeholders and rights holders. By failing to engage in this Decade, we are missing out on enormous as yet unrealized opportunity. By linking the advancements in federal cooperation on water towards the goal of meeting new 21st century challenges for water management with foreign policy objectives, the Canada Water Agency can help Canada establish a new and very positive national image abroad.


As the 50th anniversary of the signing of the ground-breaking Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the 25th anniversary of the signing of a similar accord for the Mackenzie River Basin, the year 2022 is a special year for water in Canada. It could also Canada’s return global leadership in water management, technology and governance.


To that end, we hope that Minister Guilbeault will accept a forthcoming invitation to lead a Canadian delegation to participate in and co-chair a session at the UN High-Level international conference on the advancement of water and climate related actions in support of the implementation of the Decade of Action hosted by the Government of Tajikistan in June of this year.


We also hope that Minister Guilbeault, and perhaps the Prime Minister himself, will use the new Canada Water Agency to showcase our country’s new position on the global geopolitical stage as a world leader in innovative water management and governance at the global midterm review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade for Action to be convened in New York in March 2023.

Robert Sandford holds the Global Water Futures Chair in Water & Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and is a long-standing member of the Forum for Leadership on Water.


Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace is Associate Director of Global Water Futures and an Associate Professor in Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan. As a water-health researcher, she is committed to co-created research towards equitable and sustainable water resources, disaster risk reduction, and drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene access.

Image by Tim Marshall

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