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It’s no accident that the City of Calgary spreads outward from the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers. For millennia, people around the globe have gathered wherever water flows.
“Water touches our economic prosperity, it generates energy for industry, it attracts us with its beauty and it’s vital to sustaining life,” says Pablo Pina Poujol, Academic Chair of Water Sustainability with SAIT’s MacPhail School of Energy.
But increasingly water is at the core of global problems like floods, drought and contamination.
That’s because this life-sustaining liquid also has a dark side. Too much or too little at a time and the results can be devastating, not only for individuals and communities, but also for the industries upon which they depend — agriculture, construction, energy and manufacturing, to name only a few.
The stakes for everyone will only continue to get higher, says Pina, as the frequency of climate-related extreme weather and catastrophic events including droughts, wildfires and floods increases.
“Along with issues like extreme weather events, major natural disasters, large-scale cyberattacks and massive involuntary migration, water consistently ranks among the critical challenges humanity faces,” he adds, citing reports from the World Economic Forum. “I believe we’re at a turning point in terms of capacity building.”
Finding solutions to our water issues, he explains, will require a generation of water experts — and water consumers — who can take a holistic, integrated approach.
That’s why the School of Energy is evolving its energy programs with the introduction of an Integrated Water Management diploma and a Water and Wastewater Treatment Operations certificate.
“Environmental health and long-term prosperity in society require responsible water management,” says Pina, who oversees the new water programs. “They are directly linked. That’s the ‘So what?’ part, because water touches our day-to-day lives in terms of economics like insurance costs, and in terms of safety like our health, and even in terms of spirituality like our sense of spirit.”
In the weeks following southern Alberta’s 2013 flood, Twyla Kowalczyk, a former water resources engineer with the City of Calgary who is now an instructor with the Integrated Water Management diploma, facilitated dozens of community meetings with homeowners whose basements were overwhelmed with water, mud and silt that swollen rivers had left behind.
When the city’s flood maps were first drawn in the 1980s, we looked at the space below ground much differently, says Kowalczyk. “Basements have evolved from storage areas to prime real estate.”
That penchant for putting some of our most expensive possessions in the basement is among the many reasons insurance premiums across Canada are rising. Hail storms, floods, forest fires and large-scale unseasonal snowstorms like “Snowtember” in 2014 and “Snoctober” in 2017 have insurance companies struggling to deal with the fallout of climate change, and have homeowners, businesses and governments paying a premium for the insurance coverage they are leaning on more often.
Right now insurance companies and the premiums their customers pay are covering much of the cost, says Kowalczyk, but with climate-related events only increasing in frequency and severity, that simply isn’t sustainable. We need a different approach.
As we redraw flood maps, develop communities and set policies with new weather realities in mind, she says, we must fully understand where it’s safe for us to build — and appreciate that rivers are also major corridors for wildlife and biodiversity. “Rather than focusing on one house or one neighbourhood, we need to start looking at things on a regional scale.”
Most importantly, Kowalczyk adds, we must build a value system around protecting our water resources. Gerry Gusdal, an instructor in the Water and Wastewater Treatment Operations program, couldn’t agree more.
“Every human being touches water every single day,” says Gusdal, who spent more than a decade working with First Nations communities in southern Alberta. “We take it, use it for a while and then send it back into the environment. We’re only borrowing it.”
It’s a loan that isn’t easy for everyone to access. The United Nations General Assembly declared water a human right in July 2010, yet billions of people — including many in Canada — lack access to safe water and sanitation.
In 2015, when the Government of Canada committed to ending long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2021, as many as 143 communities had to boil water before consuming it.
As a circuit rider — a travelling water expert who helps First Nations communities maintain their water and sanitation systems — Gusdal saw the challenges first-hand: small populations spread over large areas, lack of funding, and water sources that are difficult to get to and hard to treat.
“Some challenges you don’t see right away,” he says. “But taking part in every aspect of a community’s water treatment process — including parts of the job no one loves, like having wastewater splash on you — helps provide solutions and earn trust. Once you’ve gained respect, your mentorship will be valued.”
For circuit riders and water operators tasked with providing drinking water it is a taxing, 24/7 responsibility, but one that also has incredible rewards. Like the day Gusdal scrolled through Health Canada’s online list of boil water advisories to discover that — for the first time — every single advisory in his southern Alberta circuit had been lifted.
“I was proud of the water operators taking care of the systems,” he says. “They are the ones taking ownership of their water and wastewater facilities, and making sure their community is safe.”
But lifting the advisories isn’t the end, says Gusdal. Sustainability components like maintenance can’t be underestimated, nor can the importance of ensuring qualified water operators stay in their communities.
“Operators not only make sure the drinking water is safe,” he says. “They ensure wastewater is treated and released in an environmentally safe way.”
Because the people, animals and ecosystems downstream need water too. We all do. And when you look at it that way, says Gusdal, our relationship to water sounds almost spiritual.
While the human tendency to settle next to water is primarily practical — for drinking, hygiene, fishing, transportation and irrigation — our connection to places where water flows is deeper still, says Candice Young-Rojanschi.
“Human beings originally evolved from the sea. Even as individuals, we develop in the ‘waters of the womb,’” says Young-Rojanschi, an instructor in the Integrated Water Management program. “No wonder we are drawn to water — it’s part of our origins.”
Considering how water shapes our societies, history, culture, religions and personal identities, it only makes sense to manage this crucial resource in a holistic way, Young-Rojanschi says.
Integrated water management, by its very definition, she explains, includes a social element.
“People often think they’re looking at water holistically by including the environment in the picture, but it’s much more than that.”
As an example, Young-Rojanschi points to how watershed committees working to preserve rivers, wetlands, aquifers and lakes often have huge numbers of volunteers. It’s because people feel a deep personal connection to the water around them.
“Maybe they have a family history near that body of water or watershed, maybe they think of their ancestors, their grandparents or their great-grandparents when they’re protecting that resource.
“Or maybe their motivation is aesthetic — they value the beauty of nature. There are many reasons that motivate people to be passionate about protecting their local watersheds, but it’s generally not solely the typical economic drivers.”
Regardless of the reason people are vocal about water, Young-Rojanschi says the future of managing it must involve listening.
“Listening — really listening — to what people have to say about their relationship with water can be eye-opening and change how you look at the issue.
“It’s where the social element begins to overlap with the environmental element. It’s where we see accountability and stewardship.”
Not unlike the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, water is an issue where everything converges — technology, the economy, the environment, decisionmaking, science, business, health, history, spirituality, says Pina. Even addressing the issues around water has the potential to bring us together.
“If you embrace the pieces of the puzzle that will allow us to address some of the major threats facing our world, you start to see that you can tap into a different economy — a greener economy — where expertise in water management is linked to almost every other sector,” he says. “The result is solutions that can not only beautify our built environments, but also make us healthier.
“In a way, it all flows together.”