Crisis? What Crisis? Water Soft Path Proponents Swim against a Current of Sparse Data, Skeptical Citizens and Policy Barriers

By Holtz, Susan | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview
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Crisis? What Crisis? Water Soft Path Proponents Swim against a Current of Sparse Data, Skeptical Citizens and Policy Barriers


Holtz, Susan, Alternatives Journal


THE SINGLE most important characteristic of a water soft path is that it is about sustainability as a new, additional and explicit goal for water management. Unlike traditional water planning, the soft path takes into account the water requirements for in situ functions of the natural resource. This new perspective acknowledges the vital importance of maintaining ecological "services" like nutrient cycling and aquatic habitat, as well as on-site uses such as boating and hydroelectric power production. However, even in a relatively water-rich country such as Canada, the capacity of the resource to sustain these functions can be compromised before water shortages for agriculture, industry and domestic use become acute. At some point, therefore, water withdrawals and diversion will need to be limited. This fact drives the water soft path.

Studies presented in The Soft Path for Water in a Nutshell (FOE 2006) and described in this issue of Alternatives indicate that, especially in seasonal low-flow periods, shortfalls of replenishable water throughout much of southern Canada are nearer at hand than most people appreciate. In many other parts of the world, such shortfalls are already reality.

In addition to telling us something of the state of our water resources, the studies in this report demonstrate that with a soft path approach, sustainable water use in Canada is within reach. The soft path provides the new tools needed to achieve this: backcasting, matching water quality to water needs, and treating water as a service rather than as a requirement. But know-how is not enough. Implementation of a water soft path also requires policy change in water management, change that affects decision making by water utilities, and planning and other agencies at all levels of government.

Policy by definition involves establishing the overall direction that is taken on some issue. However, as listed in "Barriers Along the Path," there are a number of hurdles to overcome if decision makers and the public are to be convinced of the need for change.

Policy making by default

Policy making by default is the first obstacle that water soft path advocates must surmount. Policy choices aren't always deliberately framed by politicians and political parties. Sometimes corporate, bureaucratic or administrative decisions can limit available options for decades, effectively creating public policy. Or policy can be set by not making decisions even when there is reason to rethink alternatives and priorities. Canada's decades-long failure to develop a climate change strategy is a case in point. With water policy, business-asusual decisions, especially about infrastructure, can set water management priorities for years to come, keeping water soft path ideas on the margins. Without ever being actively rejected, a water soft path approach could be sidelined indefinitely.

Paradoxically, with a water soft path, change can be even more difficult because this approach builds on, rather than rejects, current aspects of water management. Today's model for delivering water services in Canada is still dominated by the public health and technical achievements of the past century. In many places, demand management programs have been added. But safe water systems and demand management strategies are incorporated into a water soft path. As a result, a soft path approach may not appear dramatically different, making the attention and commitment needed for its implementation harder to gain.

If there is to be progress on water soft path policies, it will require an understanding both of what can be done differently and why things need to change. Knowing who the actors are, and how they can shift policy direction is also important if water management is to move toward a water soft path and sustainability.

Policy that limits use

The primary goal of traditional business-as-usual water planning is to provide the infrastructure to tap, treat and distribute water so that people have a safe, adequate water supply for all their perceived needs.

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