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Emerging Scarcity in a Land of Plenty: Water and Water Policy in Canada

Canada is a state blessed with the world’s largest supplies of fresh water. While other natural resources (oil, grain, timber) figure largely in Canada’s economic and international profile, water is rapidly becoming recognized as a core of these other resource-based industries, and a resource that is increasingly challenged both in terms of supply and quality.

Date & Time

Apr. 17, 2012
9:00am – 11:00am ET


4th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Lars Hallstrom, Associate professor of political studies, University of Alberta, and
Director, Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities.

Charles Iceland, Senior associate, World Resources Institute

Tuesday, April 17, 2012
9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.

To launch the Alberta Scholars Series*, the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute invited Lars Hallstrom to speak about water issues facing Western Canada, particularly the province of Alberta. Generally, Canadians have viewed their country as an abundant land, filled with limitless resources. Hallstrom discussed how it might be difficult for some to imagine that Alberta, perceived as having such abundance, could reach “peak water.” Using this term as a rhetorical tool to highlight problematic water usage issues, Hallstrom described the patterns of Canadian water use and how, if not altered, these practices could lead to severe water shortages in the future.

One barrier to an adjustment of water policy is the myth of limitless water. This fallacy, exacerbated by the abnormally wet century Alberta is leaving, is engrained in the minds of many Canadians—in particular, Albertans. In addition to the myth of abundance, the myth of water stability is an equally dangerous challenge to the province. Changing Albertan’s thinking about water will go a long way to alleviating the resource stress of the near future. 

A potential cause of a water shortage is Alberta’s provincial water policy that features the “first in time, first in right” (FITFIR) system of water allocation. The system, which was used to encourage settlement over a century ago, allows water rights holders to use all of their allocated water without regard for local conditions. FITFIR has only exacerbated water shortages like Alberta’s drought of 2004 and could lead to larger problems in the future.

In addition to Alberta’s inefficient water policy, water use in the province has exploded. Due to increasing population and expanded exploitation of the oil sands, water is used more today in Alberta than at any other time. While this increased demand has caused greater stress on Alberta’s water supply, the majority of water used in the province is for agricultural purposes. As some of the oldest owners of land in Alberta, ranchers and farmers have the right, according to FITFIR, to withdraw 100 percent of their allocated water supply. Continued overuse of resources, when coupled with Alberta’s inefficient rights doctrine and a provincial belief in water’s immeasurability, could lead to an exhausted supply in the near future.

Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute (WRI), as the panel’s discussant, put Alberta’s water issues in an international context. Iceland reinforced Hallstrom’s arguments, adding that stress on water resources was felt globally. WRI models suggest that the world will consume between three and eight times as much water in the next 25 years, with 60 to 90 percent of that used for agriculture due to global shifts from a vegetable-based diet to one with more meat. In order to better understand water stress, the distinction must be made between water consumption and water withdrawals, the latter being used industrially and with a less permanent effect (because much of the water is returned to the source) than water consumption from personal use and agriculture. Promoting a better understanding of water use around the globe would go a long way to alleviating these issues in the future.

Asked about alternatives to the FITFIR system, Hallstrom said that while FITFIR was probably impossible to get rid of altogether, new water transfer mechanisms have helped ease some of the water waste in the region. He also addressed a question about First Nations and a potential water crisis stating that some First Nations communities were beginning to experience water shortages and decreases in quality. Those issues signal wider problems for the province in the future.

*The Canada Institute will host four scholars from the University of Alberta over the next year.


Hosted By

Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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