ARCHIVED - Introduction

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Water is an amazing substance – just a simple mix of two fundamental elements found scattered throughout the galaxy.

~ Peter Gleick [1]

The Global Situation

Figure 1-1
Figure 1-1: The World's Water Supply

Clean and predictable supplies of freshwater drive the economic and ecological systems on which we depend. This reality makes the sustainable development of freshwater resources among the most pressing of global challenges today. The health and prosperity of future generations depend on it. In many parts of the world, a limited supply of freshwater combined with inadequate sanitation has created a crisis situation. Over the course of the twentieth century, global population tripled as demand on finite freshwater supplies (illustrated in Figure 1-1) increased sevenfold. Today, over 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion lack access to adequate sanitation.[2] Since the early 1990s, the international community has been attempting to respond to these disturbing trends.


Agenda 21

"Water is needed in all aspects of life. The general objective is to make certain that adequate supplies of water of good quality are maintained for the entire population of this planet, while preserving the hydrological, biological and chemical functions of ecosystems, adapting human activities within the capacity limits of nature and combating vectors of water-related diseases. The multi-sectoral nature of water resources development in the context of socio-economic development must be recognized, as well as the multi-interest utilization of water resources."

~ Chapter 18, Agenda 21

The rationale for the sustainable development and management of the Earth's water resources was clearly articulated in Chapter 18 of Agenda 21, the Program of Action adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. As a member of the global community, Canada is committed to achieving international goals for freshwater. The United Nation's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7— "Ensure environmental sustainability"—includes the target to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water, by 2015. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) added a new target to this goal: to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation, also by 2015.[3] The WSSD Johannesburg Plan of Implementation includes the goal to have all countries develop integrated water resource management (IWRM) and water-efficiency plans by 2005.

Integrated water resource management (IWRM) promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of ecosystems.

Integrated water resource management has emerged internationally as the leading governance paradigm for water management. IWRM represents the application of the principles of sustainable development to the management of water resources. Characterized by collaborative, stakeholder-driven processes, IWRM offers an effective approach for reconciling competing demands with existing supplies of freshwater, while protecting water quality. The implementation of IWRM supports the advancement of sustainable development in all countries at all stages of development. NRCan recently conducted a review of water policy approaches in industrialized countries. The review found that, although first steps are being taken, many countries are struggling to implement integrated water management approaches.[4]

Like Canada, most jurisdictions distribute responsibility for water among a range of federal, regional, and local bodies in different sectors. A World Wildlife Fund study of selected European countries suggests that integrating water and land-use objectives is a particular problem.[5] The study did not point to any particular European jurisdictions or policy strategies as models.

In addition to work on international policy development, the Government of Canada contributes to the global agenda on water through participation in science-based initiatives on water quality, sharing expertise on issues related to trans-boundary waters and shared coastal areas, and providing access to technology and training in many areas of water-resource management.

Being prepared: Climate change impacts on Canada's water resources

Climate change is expected to impact both the quantity and quality of Canada's water supply. Taking action on climate change includes being prepared to adapt to the impacts on our water resources. But before we can adapt we need to know where we are vulnerable, and what our options for action are.

NRCan is responsible for the Impacts and Adaptation Program, a component of the Government of Canada's action on climate change. The Program aims to reduce Canada's vulnerability to the impacts of future climate conditions by supporting research to improve our understanding of the potential impacts on water resources across Canada, and fostering the development of information that enables adaptation decision-making. Planning ahead can reduce the costs of negative impacts, and may help some communities take advantage of new opportunities.

Between 1998 and 2004, the Impacts and Adaptation Program supported thirty-one projects related to water resources, ranging from addressing questions of future changes, to hydrology and groundwater resources, to the capacity of communities and water-management systems to adapt.

More information on these projects can be found at:

Canada and Freshwater

Relative to nations with insufficient or unreliable water supplies, Canada is privileged to enjoy an abundance of freshwater resources. As the steward of seven percent of the world's surface freshwater resources and 25 percent of global wetlands, we boast a wealth of aquatic bio-diversity, and the world's longest marine coastline. Water has played—and will continue to play—a vital role in Canada's economic development. From the first human settlements, through the period of European exploration, waterways have been Canada's corridors for migration, exploration, and trade. Water defines many of our political boundaries, and is an economic cornerstone of the modern, diversified country we know today.

While fortunate to posses significant quantities of high-quality water, Canada is not immune to water-management challenges. Periodic water shortages, conflict over access to the resource, and the rising costs associated with building and maintaining infrastructure, have made it clear that there are management issues related to Canada's water supply. For example, there are parts of Canada, including much of the southern Prairies, where there are no remaining surface water flows that have not been allocated. In southwestern Ontario, economic development and population growth are placing intense pressure on the groundwater resource. In addition, projected shifts in climate will likely create significant impacts on Canada's freshwater resources.

Supply and demand is one side of the water-management challenge. The other involves protecting the quality of Canada's water—both ensuring that the water we draw from the environment can be safely used, and that the water we return to nature does not harm ecosystem or human health. As most water use involves some degradation of water quality, the two sides are intricately linked.

In 2000, in Walkerton, Ontario, 7 people died and 2,500 became ill due to waterborne pathogens in their drinking water. More than 7,000 people fell ill when the water supply in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, became tainted with the cryptosporidium bacterium.

Water quality in Canada faces a number of threats stemming from sewage, industrial waste, surface runoff, and changing climate patterns. There have been successful actions taken to protect water quality, evidenced, for example, by a substantial reduction in discharges of toxic substances into Canadian waters over the last 15 years. But there have also been tragic failures, most significantly the supply contamination incidents in Walkerton, Ontario, and North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

Looking beyond the safety of drinking water, there are also consequential ecosystem impacts resulting from use of water, including the loss of critical wildlife habitat. Many ecosystem effects are directly linked to the quality of life Canadians value, for example, access to safe beaches.

Economic development, population growth, and changes in our climate are combining to intensify the pressures on Canada's freshwater resources. There is a critical need to develop a better understanding of these resources: where and how water is used, how various uses compete and interfere with each other, and how to address this growing competition while protecting the quality of Canada's—and the world's—water supply.

Water Governance in Canada

Jurisdiction over Canada's freshwater, and freshwater-related activities, is a complex matter. Federal or provincial legislation may apply, depending on the water body in question, or the nature of water use. The intent of legislation is realized through a great variety of regulations, public and private-sector policies, and programs. Governance of Canada's freshwater resources presents a challenge, and an opportunity, for the implementation of more precisely structured regulatory mechanisms—an approach that is better known as 'Smart Regulation'.

Federal Departments with Freshwater Responsibilities:

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
Canadian International Development Agency
Environment Canada
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Foreign Affairs Canada
Health Canada
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
Industry Canada
Infrastructure Canada
International Trade Canada
National Defence
National Research Council
Natural Resources Canada
Parks Canada
Public Works and Government
Services Canada
Statistics Canada
Transport Canada
Treasury Board Secretariat

Canada's provinces are the primary managers of water and are responsible for much of the environmental regulation and policy making that affects water issues. The federal government has jurisdiction related to fisheries, navigation, federal lands, and international relations, including responsibilities related to the management of boundary waters shared with the United States, including relations with the International Joint Commission. It also has significant responsibilities for agriculture, health and the environment, and plays a significant role supporting aquatic research and technology, and ensuring national policies and standards are in place on environmental and health-related issues.

To fully understand the federal government's role in water management in Canada, it is important to first understand the interests and mandates of the departments involved in program delivery. Within the federal government, over 20 departments and agencies have unique responsibilities for freshwater. As all levels of government hold key policy and regulatory levers which apply to water management, a central challenge is to ensure that these levers are developed and used collaboratively. As the importance of safeguarding our freshwater has risen as a national priority, it has become clear that a better focus and greater degree of coordination at all levels of government is needed. Coordinated and collaborative water governance can result in significant environmental, social and economic benefits for all Canadians.

NRCan is working closely with other federal departments to develop a more strategic approach to addressing nationally significant freshwater issues. The Federal Framework for Water provides a structure for describing the core freshwater programs and activities of the federal government.

The following are the five ultimate outcomes established for the framework:

Human Health: Canadians have access to safe drinking water and human health is protected from water quality-related health threats.

Ecosystem Health: Aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity are conserved and protected.

Sustainable Use and Economy: Economic benefits accrue to Canadians as a result of sustainable and productive use of water resources.

Hazards and Environmental Prediction: Health, safety and socio-economic impacts from floods, droughts and other water-related hazards are minimized through prediction and enhanced coping strategies.

Global Water: Global commitments are met, Canadian assistance is provided, and Canadian water-related interests are protected and promoted globally.



1 Gleick, Peter H. et al., The World's Water 2004-2005, The Biennial Report on Fresh-water Resources (Island Press, 2004), p. xv. Back to text.

2 United Nations Department of Public Information, International Year of Freshwater 2003 (December 2002). Available online at Back to text.

3 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development, Sustainable Development Issues: Freshwater (September 2004). Online information from: Back to text.

4 Allen, P. and J. Vagdama, A Review of Water Policy Approaches in Industrialized Countries (Ottawa: NRCan, 2004), p. 38. Back to text.

5 World Wildlife Fund Water and Wetland Index – Critical issues in water policy across Europe (November 2003). Back to text.