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6th May 2015
Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 06:00 am
By: Lynn Martel

Water security and climate security are inseparable; one is implicit in the other.
Such is a main conclusion of a new report published by the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-IWEH).
And, said Canmore-based water expert, Bob Sandford, the UNU-IWEH’s newly appointed Epcor Chair for water security and the report’s co-lead author, all current water management challenges will be compounded one way or another by climate change, and by increasingly unpredictable weather.
“The intensification of the Earth’s hydrological cycle has been brought about by changes in the composition of our planet’s atmosphere, for which we are responsible,” Sandford said. “These changes demand that water security now means managing not just the water you once thought was reliably available to you; but also managing water in greater extremes of abundance and scarcity.”
March 2015 was the 357th consecutive month in which temperatures were above the 20th century average, globally.
In response to that reality, Sandford’s role is to understand global water security threats from an international perspective, and then bring positive examples to bear at individual nation state levels – and, in particular, to bring the benefit of that knowledge back to Canada.
“There are a lot of places that will be addressing water concerns, whether it’s too little or too much,” Sandford said. “The hydrologic cycle has changed so much that climate circumstances are increasingly variable and uncertain. The hydrology of all of Canada is accelerating. Permafrost is melting in the Arctic and northern forests and tundra are experiencing fires of magnitudes never experienced before.
“Glaciers are disappearing and precipitation patterns are changing in our western mountains. While land use changes and increased flooding are, for the moment at least, part of a new hydro-climatic circumstance on the prairies, deep and persistent drought remains a serious threat.
“In part because of prairie flooding, algal blooms of 17,000 square kilometres in area have begun to appear in Lake Winnipeg. Meanwhile, sea level rise and higher storm surges are plaguing all three of Canada’s coasts. Hydrologically, Canada is becoming a different place.”
To those who suggest the Earth’s hydrologic cycle has always changed and fluctuated, Sandford agrees it has, but then added never at the current rate, and with virtually nowhere left on the planet that has not been altered by humans.
“There have never been nine billion people in the world – we’re currently at seven billion, but we’re projected to hit nine billion,” he said. “And we’ve never seen the rate of hydrologic change so rapid. Our policies are moving along at five kilometres an hour, while the problem of hydroclimatic change is moving along at 15 km/h, and accelerating. It is getting away on us. That’s the problem.”
Not so far to the south, for the first time in history, last week California’s governor implemented state-wide mandatory water restrictions to reduce water usage by 25 per cent in response to a severe drought that has persisted for four years.
Canadians, Sandford said, would be wise to not dismiss California’s woes as something happening “down there.” Currently, Canada’s Prairies are experiencing a cycle of big storms with potential flooding.
“But we have to think ahead and ask, through what invisible hydrologic thresholds might we pass as temperatures continue to rise, that may lead the hydrologic coin to fall on its dry side?” Sandford said. “That has to be in the back of our minds, always. We’re not as well prepared as we need to be. There’s a great deal of slack and wastage. We avoid crisis by preparing for changing circumstances.”
Sandford, whose acceptance of the four-year post, hosted by Ontario’s McMaster University, was announced in tandem with the report’s release, explained that since Earth’s climate is no longer stable, what humans and societies have grown accustomed to believing is sustainable, no longer is.
Meanwhile, the infrastructure that supports much of modern society was built to withstand and react to climate patterns that no longer exist.
“Historical predictability, known as relative hydrological stationarity, provides the certainty needed to build houses to withstand winds of a certain speed, snow of a certain weight, and rainfalls of certain intensity and duration, when to plant crops, and to what size to build storm sewers,” Sandford said.
“The consequence is that the management of water in all its forms in the future will involve a great deal more uncertainty than it has in the past.”
As a result of the loss of relative hydrologic stability, political stability and even economic stability, some regions are now at risk.
“On a global scale, failure to adapt to climate change leads first to greater vulnerability to extreme weather events; food crises; water crises; large-scale involuntary migration and further man-made environmental catastrophes which in turn lead to biodiversity loss and Earth system collapse,” Sandford said.
“The failure to adapt to climate change has even more devastating effects at the national level where it can generate fiscal crises; unemployment; profound social instability; the failure of national governance; internal interstate conflict; terrorist and cyber-attacks resulting in on-going state crises leading to potential collapse. These risks are not theoretical. They are real.”
Water security, he said, means having and being able to reliably provide adequate water of the right quality where and when it is needed for all purposes, including those related to sustainable natural bio-diversity-based Earth system function. It also means ensuring that use and management of water in one region does not in any way negatively affect the water security of regions up or downstream, now or in the future.
The biggest demands on freshwater come from agriculture, which uses 70 per cent, the report says, followed by energy production, which constitutes 15 per cent of all freshwater use. Current technology demands that large amounts of energy are needed to draw, clean and deliver water to homes, industry and farm fields. An estimated 25 per cent of the world’s major river basins run dry for part of each year, the report notes, adding new conflicts are likely to emerge as more of the world’s rivers become further heavily abstracted so that they no longer make it to the sea.
In his new role of water security chair, for which Sandford expressed gratitude to Epcor for its long-standing support, he said he would build on 10 years’ worth of relationships and contacts built in his previous role as chair of the Canadian arm of the UN’s Water for Life Decade initiative.
Specific goals will be more clearly defined as a result of the report this fall, when the United Nations determines the exact way in which sustainable development goals for water will inform the larger global sustainable development agenda.
“We feel the link between water and climate is so direct that it is impossible to deal adaptively with climate disruption without first re-examining water governance practices,” Sandford said. “And we’re not waiting. We know what has to be done. We’re already experiencing the trends to which we have to adapt.”