Column

Will Canada Be Prepared for Drought in a Changing Climate?

by & Meredith James

Have you noticed the growing reports about drought? Cities like Sao Paolo, Atlanta and Austin are nearly out of water. Utah may be entering a 1000 year drought. Australia is struggling. California has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. And so on around the world.

An Op Ed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior water cycle scientist Jay Famiglietti calls for immediate water rationing, groundwater management legislation, long-term water management strategies, and public ownership of the issue. He emphasizes the need for an honest, transparent and forward-looking process, concluding: “Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan.”

Which raises the question: “What is Canada’s drought response plan?”

It’s not just an issue for hot places. Global climate change scenarios predict that Canada will experience deeper and longer droughts in the future, interspersed with floods. Historically, prolonged, widespread droughts have been among Canada’s costliest natural disasters, impacting the economy, the environment, and human health. According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, during the 2001-2002 drought, the GDP fell by $5.8 billion, agricultural production dropped an estimated $3.6 billion, and employment losses exceeded 41,000 jobs. “Water supplies that were previously reliable were negatively affected, and several failed to meet the requirements… Numerous adaptation measures were severely challenged.”

Despite these potentially devastating impacts, drought preparedness across Canada is uneven. At the high water mark (no pun intended) are detailed plans for low water monitoring and management, such as Ontario’s Low Water Response Strategy and British Columbia’s Drought Response Plan (2010). In both, responses to increasingly severe levels of low water range from voluntary consumption reductions to regulations, to be invoked where supply no longer meets demand and communities experience social and economic impacts. In the event of a complete loss or near loss of supply, emergency responses may be required, but this is outside the scope of these plans.

Will provincial governments actually invoke these plans on time when we need them? And will they work? Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner has expressed concerns that decision-makers rely too heavily on voluntary measures and do not use the mandatory regulatory tools available to them. He also recommended a full policy review of the Ontario Low Water Response Plan, citing significant concerns with its effectiveness. He also suggests that the legislative hurdles to trigger a declaration that regulatory restrictions are necessary may be prohibitively difficult to satisfy. No policy review has yet taken place, as far as we know.

In the Prairie Provinces and the Maritimes, planning is even less well developed. In Manitoba, the provincial government committed to putting in place a Drought Management Strategy in its Green Plan (2014), but the Strategy is still under development. Similarly, the provincial drought response plan described in the 25 Year Saskatchewan Water Security Plan (2012) will not be finalized until 2016 according to the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency’s 2013-2014 Annual Report.

Alberta’s Water for Life Action Plan (2009) contemplates “strategies to deal with the management of changing future water supplies through the provincial Climate Change Adaptation strategy and through implementation of the Land-use Framework and watershed planning.” However, this work remains at a very general level. For example, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, states: “The provincial water management system will continue to be assessed for optimization and efficiencies to address periods of low flows and drought conditions and high flows and flood conditions.” Alberta’s focus appears to be on increasing water storage and using the water allocation management system, which is currently under review, to manage risk in times of water scarcity.

So, does Canada have a drought plan? We have parts of a plan, but they need work. In this, as in so many other areas of preparing for the impacts of climate change, we’re not yet doing enough both to mitigate, and to adapt. We still destroy wetlands and waste stunning amounts of water, like so many other things. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky, but it’s not much of a plan to count on always being lucky. Bad news doesn’t always happen to other people.

— Dianne Saxe and Meredith James

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