Professor John Pomeroy, director of the Global Water Futures program and Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, University of Saskatchewan
Canada has had two brutal wake-up calls from Mother Nature this year.
This summer, we had unprecedented heat and drought that were made far worse by climate change. A heat dome killed more than 600 people in B.C. and disturbed the natural water cycle in ways that created massive water-management problems and ecosystem disruption. It caused the most widespread drought in our recorded history, which ruined crops and pastures.
Tinderbox-dry conditions in our forests caused extensive wildfires that resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people, choking smoke across the country and the destruction of two towns and many homes. The excess heat melted mountain snow and ice early, causing record flooding, melting permafrost and collapsing roads in the North.
The heat in Southern Canada melted mountain glaciers at record-high rates and evaporated water too quickly, leading to insufficient community water supplies, dry or algae-affected lakes and wetlands, and rising food prices as livestock herds were culled because of lacks of water and feed.
And now we have the massive and highly destructive B.C. floods that have inundated dozens of communities, destroyed homes, farms, industries, roads, railways and infrastructure and have cost lives. This is certainly the most severe and most extensive flooding in Canadian history. And it has occurred through mechanisms, such as rain and rain-on-snow in the high mountains, that have never been observed to cause flooding in the Fraser River Basin in November.
The economic impact of these climate-caused water disasters will certainly be in the many billions of dollars and felt across Canada. The social impact has been most severe on our disadvantaged rural and Indigenous communities.
Climate and water models predict that these events and problems will become more severe and frequent in the future as the world’s water cycle responds to a changing climate. This is a serious problem for Canada’s water-based economy and environment that cannot be ignored.
What can Canadians do about it? Plenty!
Canada is in dire need of federal leadership on water because water is the medium through which climate change affects our economy, communities and ecosystems. A climate crisis is a water crisis. Water-based adaptations to climate change extend beyond municipal, Indigenous, provincial/territorial and national boundaries and so require national solutions.
Now is the time to tell our politicians that we need a national freshwater action plan to restore sustainability to our water and adapt to the challenges of climate change. We need national co-ordination, new investment and novel technologies applied to the prediction of floods and droughts, identification of properties and infrastructure at risk from floods, and strategies to better protect communities from the economic devastation of flooding.
We need funds ready for disaster mitigation and adaptation, flood and drought recovery and the use of natural infrastructure such as wetlands, peatlands and forests to reduce the impacts of flooding and drought. We need to support calls for a UN Year of Glacier Preservation and work with countries around the world to better understand the impacts of deglaciation.
We need extraordinary and co-ordinated planning and efforts to protect our freshwater through conservation of rivers, lakes and their watersheds. And we need a national water agency with the capacity, financial means and legal foundation to co-ordinate this. We need the research and science capacity to inform wise water decisions and build state-of-the art water prediction and management systems.
For this to work in an era when our national priority must be reconciliation, we need to recognize and include Indigenous water rights in the legal foundation and operation of this national approach to restore our water sustainability. These responses should be fully co-developed with our Indigenous communities.
The impacts of rapidly accelerating climate change on our national waters have become unmanageable at the local level and time is running out to take our water crisis seriously.
We need national leadership on water, now, so that we can protect our ecosystems, communities, infrastructure, farms, and industries in a drier, hotter, stormier and more catastrophic future that – far faster than we anticipated – is becoming the dystopian present.
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