VIDEO: “The sustainability challenge: Do nothing and fall behind; or run hard just to stay where you are,” Bob Sandford said to his Feast & Famine Workshop audience

Solutions and Tools for Building Water-Resilient Communities

In December 2015, the Feast AND Famine Workshop addressed this over-arching question: What should we expect and what can we do to build “water-resilient communities”? The program comprised four modules that were cascading – from high-level visioning to ground-level applications. Adaptation to a changing climate was a unifying theme.

In Module A, Kim Stephens and Bob Sandford were a tag-team. First they provided the BC and global contexts, respectively. Then they interacted with the audience in a town-hall style ‘sharing & learning’ session. The energy this approach created set the tone for the workshop day.

Bob Sandford is an internationally known author and water champion. In providing a global context, he elaborated on the value of studying and understanding the history of water policy and management in California. He also made the case for early action on ‘restorative development’.

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What Happened to the Water Balance?

Bob Sandford provided this big picture context: “The drought that extended this past winter, spring and summer from Vancouver Island to Manitoba and from Mexico to the Yukon is an indicator that Western North America may be crossing an invisible threshold into a different hydro-meteorological regime.”

“After a period of relative hydro-climatic stability, changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere have resulted in the acceleration of the global hydrologic cycle with huge implications. We can expect deeper, more persistent drought punctuated by flooding.”

To Learn More:

To download a PDF copy of the PowerPoint presentation by Bob Sandford, click on The Storm after the Calm: Hydro-Climatic Change & Its Consequences. His slide-by-slide storyline follows below:

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Slide 1: Title Slide

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Thank you very much for the kind introduction. I wish to thank Ted van der Gulik and Kim Stephens for the opportunity to speak at this important and very timely symposium.

For those who do not know me, please allow me to explain that the goal of my work with the UN is to build a better bridge between science and public understanding and policy action on water and climate issues in Canada. One of the principal roles of our initiative is to bring national and international example to bear on Canadian water and water-related climate concerns.

Slide 2: Follow the Water

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My principal focus is on water security. As everyone at this gathering knows, water security used to mean having and being able to reliably provide adequate water of the right quality where and when you need it for all purposes especially agriculture but also for purposes related to sustainable natural bio-diversity-based Earth system function.

It also used to mean ensuring that your use and management of water in the region in which you live does not in any way negatively affect the water security of regions up or downstream from you now or in the future. Water security still means all of these things; but changing circumstances now mean that there is an additional element of water security that must now be considered.

Over the last decade water security has also come to mean being able to achieve these goals not just in the face of growing populations but also in the face of new circumstances created by the acceleration of the global hydrological cycle.

What I am describing here is what I call the storm after the calm.   After a period of relative hydro-climatic stability during which we created most of our built environment, step-like changes to our hydro-climatic circumstances are demanding that we redefine what development and sustainability mean not just in Canada but globally. This in turn demands that we reassess personal and collective vulnerability, accountability and liability and adapt quickly to change circumstances if we want to sustain our prosperity in the face altered hydro-climatic conditions.

What such reassessment reveals is that water security, food security and climate security are inseparable; one is implicit in the other. It could even be said they are the same thing. As everyone in this room knows; water, food and climate security are critical elements of sustainability. Without stable water and climate regimes sustainability will forever remain a moving target. But if you are at this symposium you also know that flood resilience is very much an element of the larger water security ideal.

This makes forest management, especially in upland regions a critical factor in any water and climate security formula. These are old ideas made new again in the context of the emerging politics of hydro-meteorological change. In order to see where all this might be taking us it may be helpful to examine how these politics of hydro-meteorological change emerged and have evolved.

Slide 3: Flooding in New Orleans


While not related directly to climate change the issue of urban flood resilience appeared on our radar just after the UN Water for Life Decade was initiated ten years ago. What happened in New Orleans could simply not be ignored. While the media and most public attention focused on the failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the culpability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the disaster, we looked at the broader implications of the disaster.

We examined the implications of a projected increase in the vulnerability of big cities to longer, more frequent, and ever more intense flooding events that were expected over time as a consequence of human-caused changes in the composition of the global atmosphere. What we found was that, while the initial focus was on the huge cost of repairing the damage to the city; the real cost – the deeper cost that went largely uncalculated – was the permanent physical and psychological impact on those who survived Katrina and its aftermath.  It has taken a decade to sort out just how serious this damage really was and remains.

Slide 4: Five Days at Memorial


If you interested in the larger issues related to the sustainability of our society in a changing climate and haven’t already read this book, I urge you to do so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, sections of New Orleans were uninhabitable for weeks. The hospital medical centre at which Sheri Fink worked was an island in the centre of the flood zone.

When the power went out in the city, back-up generators could not keep the air conditioning functioning and still be relied upon to supply light.

Helicopters could only take one or two of the 2000 people that needed to be evacuated at a time. The ethical question became who to evacuate first. How do you prioritize who lives and who dies? In the aftermath some doctors and nurses were charged with murder. What this example demonstrates is that the moral jeopardy that arises in the aftermath of extreme weather events is similar to that which arises in war zones where it becomes impossible to adhere to established moral values. That is the larger terrain we are entering with respect to extreme events.

Slide 5: The New Normal


Katrina was followed by nearly a decade of foreshadowing of the flooding disaster we later experienced in Southern Alberta. There was flooding in southern Alberta in 2005; followed by flooding widely throughout Europe and the Northern Hemisphere almost every year following.

Slide 6: Australian Flooding


Then in 2010, we began to see mega-floods – events that occurred in Australia and Pakistan so large they had never experienced before.

Slide 7: Prairie Flooding 2011


There was a mega-flood on the Canadian prairies in 2011.

It was clear to us that there was something going on out there – the hydrologic order was changing – but we didn’t have the evidence to prove it. Then suddenly we had it.

Slide 8: National Academies Report


In the fall of 2011, John Pomeroy and researchers at the University of Saskatchewan showed evidence that was confirmed by a major report almost simultaneously released by the National Research Council in the United States that proved that the global hydrological cycle is, in fact, accelerating. The report confirmed how serious the loss of hydrologic stability could be in North America and around the world if current trends persist.

The findings of the National Academies analysis include consensus on the fact that anthropogenic land cover changes such as deforestation, wetland destruction, urban expansion, dams, irrigation projects and other water diversions have significant impact on the duration and intensity of floods and drought.

Slide 9: National Academies Report Quote


The report concludes that “continuing to use the assumption of stationarity in designing water management systems is, in fact, no longer practical or even defensible.” In other words, the old math and the old methods no longer work – and continuing to use them will in time be legally indefensible.

The significance of the loss of hydrologic stationarity is only slowly beginning to sink in.

My experience globally right now is that at present action in support of true sustainability and resilience in the fact of hydro-climatic change is moving along at 5 kilometers an hour while the problem is moving along at 19 kilometers an hour and accelerating. We need to catch up while we still can; and I think that is what this symposium is about. 

Slide 10: Liveable Cities Ad


Because of the increasing number and growing costs of climate-related disasters, more and more people in this country are concerned about resilience. This growing interest coincides with a critical time in the global dialogue concerning the sustainability of human presence on this planet.

Slide 11: Earth System Boundaries


We face a number of cumulative and compounding human effects that at present make sustainability a moving target. We need to stabilize these effects if we don’t want adaptation and resilience to constantly be beyond reach.

The problem, as all of you know, is that our numbers, needs and activities globally are such that we have begun to undermine the planetary conditions upon which we depend for the stability of environment and economy that are the foundation of our prosperity.

Nine Earth system boundaries have been identified as critical in that the extent they are not crossed mark the safe zone. Of these nine boundaries, we have already crossed four.

Slide 12: A New Geological Era: The Anthropocene?


Careful examination of how our hydrology is changing and how little the public understands the significance of these changes suggests that if we want to create resilience we may have to reframe our situation. One way our current situation is being reframed is through the notion that we have entered a new geological era in which human activities rival the processes of nature itself.

So what is this new geological epoch and how is it different from the geological periods of the past? This new geological era is being called the Anthropocene. Unlike earlier epochs in the Earth’s history which were brought about by meteorite strikes and other geological events which resulted in mass extinctions, this epoch is marked by our overall impact on the Earth system. Climate disruption is only one of the Earth system boundaries that mark the safe zone we must stay within if we want a prosperous future.

By virtue of our numbers and our activities we have altered global carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. We are causing changes in the chemistry, salinity and temperature of our oceans and the composition of our atmosphere. Changes in the composition of the atmosphere in tandem with land use changes and our growing water demands have also altered the global water cycle. The cumulative measure of the extent to which we have crossed these boundaries is the rate of biodiversity loss.

What this means is that we have entered an era in which we can no longer count on self-willed, self-regulated natural landscapes to absorb human impacts on Earth system function.

Whether we like it or not we have to assume responsibility for staying within Earth system boundaries. These, however, are not matters people want to talk about. The problem is that the way things are going now we will not be able to afford the costs to our economy of ignoring our changing hydro-meteorological circumstances. This means we have to re-think sustainability.

Despite inherent tensions among them the next iteration of global sustainable development goals and targets must create a safe operating space within Earth system and social boundaries. 

Slide 13: Transforming Our World Agenda


In responding to the urgency and the opportunity of finally getting sustainable development right, the United Nations last month announced a new framework for global action.

The 2030 Transforming Our World agenda promises to be the most comprehensive and inclusive effort to positively change the world in all of human history. This may well be the most important thing we have ever done for ourselves and for our planet. It is nothing less than a charter for people and the planet for the 21st century.

The 2030 Transforming Our World agenda raises the ceiling on sustainability. As such it is as important as pending climate negotiations in Paris in that it deals with damage we are doing to other elements of the Earth system that are exacerbating and being exacerbated by climate change.

The 2030 agenda is constructed around five themes: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. This agenda applies equally to the developed world as it does to developing nations.

Our hope for achieving sustainable development globally resides in the balance between urgency, capacity and will to succeed as demonstrated by each and every UN Member State in making action possible through common but differentiated responsibility at the level of each nation. It is at the national level that these goals must be met. The degree of our success will depend on governance, by which I mean the way in which authority is organized and executed in a society.

Translating the global sustainable development agenda to action at the national level is the greatest challenge we now face in dealing with the degree of hydro-climatic change we are now witnessing on a planetary scale. In other words we won’t achieve the goal of sustainable human existence at any meaningful level of prosperity unless we all take common global goals seriously and implement meaningful and measurable actions at the national level in every country in the world. This means there can be no laggards particularly in the developed world. It also means that the world cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

Where does Canada stand in all this? That just changed. Often in social movements timing is everything. The world is about to reach out to steady itself. Now is the time. There is still room to move, but we have to move now what that room still exists.

One of the ways to re-energize the conversation about sustainable development and humanity’s need for resilience in the face of rapid change is to talk about something none of us can live without: water.

Of the nine Earth system boundaries which we dare not cross, water plays of significant role in seven. There are 17 goals in the 2030 Transforming Our World sustainable development agenda. Goal 6 pertains specifically to water. The world learned from the Millennium Development Goals that we need to better address the multiple roles water plays in establishing, maintaining and improving the human condition. Creating a systems approach to managing water has to be seen as synonymous with sustainability and the sine qua non of resilience.

Slide 14: Liveable Cities


Then there is the not insignificant matter of cities. Some 92% of the population growth which has brought the last 1.2 billion into the world has occurred in cities. Some 60% of the urban space required to accommodate future populations has yet to be built. Sustainable development goal 11 aims to make the world’s cities and human settlements inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

The Transforming Our World vision is that by 2030 sustainable, resilient cities will significantly reduce the number of deaths and the economic and psychological effects caused by disasters including water-related catastrophes.

The target is that as early as five years from now we will have substantially increased the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change and to enhance resilience to disasters. Five years – that’s not much time.

By 2030 we also want to reduce the adverse per capita impact of cities on surrounding regions.

I spend a lot time travelling in rural Canada as many of you do, and I can say with considerable confidence that most city-dwellers would be very surprised with what is going on out there in the name of urban prosperity.

The concept of sustainable development has been badly abused in this country. Because it has lacked clear, commonly held definition and timeframes the concept of sustainable development has become like elevator music to which we all march down the road together thinking we are actually doing something that is not being mocked and overshadowed by population and economic growth. It all sounds terrific until someone starts asking divisive questions about where we are actually going.

Deteriorating Earth system function makes it very clear that if we don’t take sustainable development seriously we could find ourselves on a planet whose conditions are hostile to human habitability as we know it today.  We are now faced with the realization that if we are to achieve any meaningful level of sustainable development all development has to not only be sustainable but restorative.

We need to recognize that no city can become truly sustainable and resilient unless the landscapes around it are managed sustainably also. This means we have to master basin-scale integrated water resource management. It also means we have to stop ignoring the growing impacts of industrial agriculture.

Slide 15: Stream Channelization


It is widely held that agriculture globally is in a state of emergency that cannot be sustained indefinitely. At the risk of disagreeing with one another, we have to talk about these things. This is not an “us versus them” proposition. We can’t let agriculture fail. Nobody disputes that. If agriculture fails, our cities will fail; but we also need clean water and protection from flooding. That fact remains, however, that if we want flood resilience in our cities – or anywhere else – we not only need changes in agricultural practices but changes in agricultural principles. Agriculture must become restorative as well as productive.

Slide 16: International Year of Soils


What we may need is another agricultural revolution – one in which society agrees to pay farmers not just for crops but for perpetuating critical Earth system functions over the ever-expanding lands now under agriculture globally. We know what direction we should head.

Rebuilding soils as a means of enhancing natural processes of water purification is now seen as smart urban planning. That is why 200 cities in 29 countries have foregone building new water treatment plants and instead invested in watershed restoration that prevents pollution downstream while at the same time enhancing flood protection. But soil does something else besides grow forests, supply food and absorb and purify water.  It stores carbon.

It is now estimated that we have already lost as much as 80 billion tons of carbon from our soils through inappropriate agricultural practices and short-sighted land-use.

Current IPCC warming projections based on the effect of increased CO2 in the atmosphere resulting from greenhouse emissions do not as yet take the effects of warming of the world’s soils into full consideration. It appears, however, that these feedbacks could be substantial. There is about four times more carbon sequestered in top 20 centimeters of our planet’s soils as there is now in the atmosphere. A warming of only 2˚C could cause 25% of the soil carbon in top soil to burn off as carbon dioxide. That amount would be equal to the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. In other words, if we warm the world’s soils by 2˚C, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double from its present 400 parts per million to 800 parts per million. Keeping and getting carbon in the soil, therefore, may be one of humanity’s most important priorities.

We need smart agriculture – which is to say agriculture which seeks to increase productivity while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions and increasing resilience. What we may need is another green revolution – another agricultural revolution but this time focused on the integration of water, food and climate security. Canada can and should be a leader in that revolution.

Slide 17: The Red Queen Effect


I am reminded of the “Red Queen Effect” in biology which is used as a metaphor for the evolutionary principle that regardless of how well a species adapts to its current environment, it must keep up with its competitors and enemies who are also evolving. 

“The Red Queen Effect” is an allusion to Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass where Alice is confronted with the fact that in Wonderland you have to run at least twice as fast to keep in the same place. The Red Queen Effect very much describes our current sustainability challenge. Do nothing and fall behind; or run hard just to stay where you are.

Slide 18: Transforming Our World Image


In conclusion I wish to point out that it is not the end of the world. There is no need for us to throw up our hands in hopeless despair. Nor should any of us feel compelled to curl up in a ball on the floor. Declining Earth system function gives the concept of true sustainability new force.

I believe that, if only out of sheer necessity, we will adapt and become more resilient as a society. We should never lose sight of the fact that the potential also exists to create a better world.

I am honoured and privileged to work with people of your caliber to help create that world. Thank you.