Volatile food prices, drought and moral reasons why Canada is wrong on water (again)

Yesterday it was reported that Canada would be withdrawing its (somewhat meager, $350 000) annual contribution to a 1995 UN Convention addressing drought in Africa. Canada is the the one and only country now not party to the convention.

The official reason? The bureaucratic costs of the program eat up too much of the contribution.Ethical_Water

Carol Off, from CBC Radio, interviews Bob Sandford (co-author of Ethical Water, among many other things) on this issue and Canada’s continuing withdrawal from initiatives that would help understand drought not only in Africa, but here in North America as well. The interview also situates these developments relative to Canada’s recent decisions to shut down its preeminent watershed science program and climate change (in)action. The interview is just under 7 minutes long, but covers a lot of worthwhile ground.

Bob makes a number of good points, which he grounds in the moral obligations we have regarding water. This is a point virtually lost in the contemporary media debates – these tend to jump to theories about political ideology, political economy interests, and so on. All quite plausible. And all fit the procedural formula for story telling that is typical fare in quick political jabs or news stories.

Carol Off, by contrast, has been doing an outstanding job on these recent water issues.

McKinsey’s report on the “Resource Revolution”: water, energy, etc.

I snaked this info from the original post here.”The new McKinsey report Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs shows that the resource challenge can be met through a combination of expanding the supply of resources and a step change in the way they are extracted, converted, and used. Such resource productivity improvements, using existing technology, could satisfy nearly 30 percent of demand in 2030. Just 15 areas, from more energy-efficient buildings to improved irrigation, could deliver 75 percent of the potential for higher resource productivity.

Meeting the resource-supply and productivity challenges will be far from easy—only 20 percent of the potential is readily achievable and 40 percent will be hard to capture. There are many barriers, including the fact that the capital needed each year to create a resource revolution will rise from roughly $2 trillion today to more than $3 trillion, with additional capital requirements to pursue climate change and universal-energy-access agendas. The benefits could be as high as $3.7 trillion a year, however, if carbon had a price of $30 per metric ton and if governments removed substantial resource subsidies and taxes.

Policy makers should consider action on three fronts: unwinding subsidies that keep prices artificially low and encourage inefficiency; ensuring that enough capital is available and that market failures associated with, for instance, property rights and incentives are corrected; and bolstering society’s resilience by creating safety nets to help very poor people deal with change and educating consumers and businesses to heed the reality of future resource constraints.

In the 20th century, governments and businesses didn’t have to worry about resource productivity; they could focus on capital and labor. Over the next 20 years, resources must be at the heart of public policy and business strategy.

Click here to view the interactive report and download the report.”

Water in the Anthropocene: Bonn conference May 2013

For more details and full program see here.

International Conference

Welcome to the homepage of the GWSP international conference entitled:

‘Water in the Anthropocene: Challenges for Science and Governance. Indicators, Thresholds and Uncertainties of the Global Water System’

to be held at Maritim Hotel Bonn, Germany on 21-24 May 2013.

The conference is organized by the Global Water System Project and its International Project Office based in Bonn, Germany. It is kindly supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The focus of the conference is to address the global dimensions of water system changes due to anthropogenic as well as natural influences.

The conference will provide the platform to present global and regional perspectives of world wide experiences on the responses of water management to global change in order to address issues such as variability in supply, increasing demands for water, environmental flows, and land use change. It will help to build links between science and policy and practice in the area of water resources management and governance, related institutional and technological innovations and identify in which ways research can assist policy and practice in the field of sustainable freshwater management.

Participants from all continents and dealing with various water-related problems are expected to attend this conference.

Water scarcity and the common good: Christiana Z. Peppard

Christiana Z. Peppard, a professor of Theology and Science at Fordham University offers a lesson in valuing water in the video below. I had the chance to meet Dr. Peppard in Syracuse a couple of years ago and I look forward to seeing more of her work on water and values.

I particularly like that this short video doesn’t sugarcoat the deep requirements of rethinking both our individual relations to water and the larger systemic issues.


David Schindler on the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area

I won’t promise that this will be my last post about the closing of the experimental lakes area in Canada. I know, I’ve already discussed it in the context of a broader undermining of the Canadian water commons and as a missed opportunity to connect science to values.

I won’t rehash those points. Rather, I thought I would post this excellent interview with David Schindler from CBC Radio’s program “As it Happens.” You can listen to the interview by following this link. It is 11 minutes extremely well spent.


Is there still a right to water?

Last Friday there was a meeting at the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the topic of water.

There are a number of interesting pdfs available to read and the event looks like it was quite interesting. Here is a blurb from the website:
“Representatives from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency, and the National Farmers’ Union were brought together with water industry and academic experts by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on Tuesday at an Oxford workshop to discuss the right to water in the face of increasing pressures associated with climate change.

The workshop, entitled Economic Rights and Regulatory Regimes: Is there still a ‘right’ to water? addressed the evolving environmental policy context of the UK government’s proposed reforms to the licensing system for abstracting water in England and Wales.

Dr Bettina Lange of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (Oxford University) and Dr Mark Shepheard from McGill University (Canada) convened the event, which was held at Wolfson College, Oxford before an audience of over fifty scholars and practitioners working on water and environmental issues.

In advance of the United Nations World Water Day on 22 March, which this year focuses on water cooperation, the workshop provided a timely opportunity for senior strategists at Defra, the Environment Agency, water companies, and the NFU to discuss the issues raised by increasing regulatory intervention and water scarcity linked to population growth and climate change. The event also enabled participants to formulate responses to the evolving environmental policy context of the UK government’s White Paper ‘Water for Life’ and Draft Water Bill announced last year and currently entering a period of assessment and consultation, which was outlined by Defra’s Head of Future Water Resource Management Project Henry Leveson-Gower.” READ MORE

How to think about science: excellent podcast resources on STS

Thanks to Garry Peterson for linking to the CBC Ideas Series “How to think about Science“. It is really a great introduction to Science and Technology Studies (STS).

The list of thinkers and topics is impressive. Here is what you find on the CBC website:

“If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?
Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.”

Episode Guide

Episode 1 – Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer
Episode 2 – Lorraine Daston

Episode 3 – Margaret Lock
Episode 4 – Ian Hacking and Andrew Pickering
Episode 5 – Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour
Episode 6 – James Lovelock
Episode 7 – Arthur Zajonc
Episode 8 – Wendell Berry
Episode 9 – Rupert Sheldrake
Episode 10 – Brian Wynne
Episode 11 – Sajay Samuel
Episode 12 – David Abram
Episode 13 – Dean Bavington
Episode 14 – Evelyn Fox Keller
Episode 15 – Barbara Duden
and Silya Samerski
Episode 16 – Steven Shapin
Episode 17 – Peter Galison
Episode 18 – Richard Lewontin
Episode 19 – Ruth Hubbard
Episode 20 – Michael Gibbons, Peter Scott, & Janet Atkinson Grosjean
Episode 21 -Christopher Norris and Mary Midgely
Episode 22 – Allan Young
Episode 23 – Lee Smolin
Episode 24 – Nicholas Maxwell

The hydrologic cycle – where are the people?

Jamie Linton’s book, What is water?, provides a critique of the way that the hydrologic cycle is presented as an abstract way of understanding water that rarely, if ever, includes humans. Here is the “hydrologic cycle” as it is presented on the Environment Canada website:


To try and counter the idea that humans somehow exist apart from nature, many theorists now posit something called the “hydrosocial cycle” – which is a term designed to direct us to the fact that water cycles through social spaces: our homes, cities and so on. Further, it helps attune us to the way that our growing impact on the planet makes the Earth a sort of social space as well. Ultimately, there are not any non-social spaces in a human dominated planet.

Anyways, I have my comings and goings with the “hydrosocial cycle” and, as I work on a paper I am presenting this spring, I recalled another way of presenting water without people (UPDATE FEB 16, 2014: You can now read my paper here, which shows Jamie Linton has the history quite wrong. UPDATE 2017: If you read my book, you will see Linton is wrong on virtually every key historical point about America and “modern water”). It was one developed by the World Economic Forum. Take a look at the video below and note that while it begs consideration of the way we value water, in economic terms, there is nothing particularly “social” about it either even though it uses the language of “crisis” to motivate the audience.

What shutting down the Experimental Lakes area says about water’s value

Today, Canada’s official opposition party will make a last ditch effort to stop the government from shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area – a world-class site for conducting ecosystem scale experiments in freshwater environments.

The closure of the ELA is being described in all sorts of ways: a war on science, an instance of ideological politics, even as a vendetta where the Prime Minister exacts revenge on David Schindler, one of the world’s foremost ecologists who ran the ELA and who has, with his uncompromising but endearing demeanor, identified the many gaps in Canada’s freshwater monitoring (particularly with respect to energy development).

I imagine there could be grains of truth in any (perhaps all) of these descriptions. But whether or not there are, and certainly there are sharp disagreements over just what the government is up to, I think there is something very basic that is being overlooked: water’s value.

Until a spring storm postponed my talk at Acadia today, I planned on giving a lecture on the value of water tonight. That will now happen in early April, just days after the ELA is officially shuttered.

My sense is that there is something deeply amiss when water’s value plays no role in either side of the debate about things like the ELA. Potential ‘wars on science’ and ‘ideology’ are important, no doubt, but unless they are connected to what is deeply, if implicitly troubling about failing to steward water, my sense is that there is a missed opportunity to forge the connection from political decisions to personal life.

Why should the average person care about the ELA? Of what difference to me does some experiment in northern Ontario make?

Articulating the concrete link between water’s value and public policy decisions is what makes things matter; not the games over science and energy policy played thousands of kilometers away in Ottawa. It matters that my kids cannot swim in the lake where their summer camp is, that we cannot eat the fish we catch, that buying bottled water makes me feel ‘safe’ from who-knows-what.

So while policies are important, perhaps critical, they are not so because science tells us what to do, but because without good science we are left with fewer tools to ensure that water’s value is respected.

Strangely, however, we find again and again that discussions of water’s value are rarely, if ever, explicit.

I don’t claim to offer answers regarding what water’s value is, in toto, across space, time or culture. That is something to be determined by those who share water. But until the connection is made to water’s value, it seems unlikely that politicians on either side of the debate will be able to make explicit what is of most consequence in decisions like that regarding the ELA. Namely, that water is what enables the lives and life projects that we value and so its value is central to sound public policy.

It’s ‘ban bottled water day’ in Canada

Today, in the lead up to World Water Day later this week, it’s bottled water free day. I agree that, for the most part, bottled water is a large waste of resources. But I am less inclined to wrap it up in broader arguments about privatization and so forth, whereas others are not. I was thinking of a couple of good resources that came out on bottled water a few years back. They are worth a look. 9781597265287

The first is Peter Gleick’s book Bottled and Sold: the story behind our obsession with bottled water.

BLURB: ” Peter Gleick knows water. A world-renowned scientist and freshwater expert, Gleick is a MacArthur Foundation “genius,” and according to the BBC, an environmental visionary. And he drinks from the tap. Why don’t the rest of us?

Bottled and Sold shows how water went from being a free natural resource to one of the most successful commercial products of the last one hundred years—and why we are poorer for it. It’s a big story and water is big business. Every second of every day in the United States, a thousand people buy a plastic bottle of water, and every second of every day a thousand more throw one of those bottles away. That adds up to more than thirty billion bottles a year and tens of billions of dollars of sales.”

The second is a short video from Annie Leonard who is behind the “story of stuff” project.