Canada’s Bob Sandford is “The Winston Churchill of Water”

Note to Reader:

The hot and deadly summer of 2018 began in Canada with the rapid melt of near record snow packs in the mountain West. Then came the heat waves. Next came the wildfires and the endless smoke that spread across five provinces and two territories for weeks on end.

This happened right across Europe and Asia: fires, drought and then floods everywhere. The impossible seemed to be happening all at once around the world.

The turning point in our observations was the sunrise over much of western Canada on the morning of Friday, August 17th, 2018. That day was surprisingly smoky in an apocalyptic way that made it eerily reminiscent of some of the sci-fi doomsday thrillers of the 1980’s and 199o’s.  And it just kept coming.

Two weeks ago, in Invermere at the Wings Over the Rockies Festival, Bob Sandford described how the 2018 summer marked a point where the northern hemisphere crossed an invisible threshold into a new and more turbulent climate regime as the intense wildfires in British Columbia mirrored extreme weather events that happened across Europe and Asia.

His presentation outlined lessons learned from last summer’s extreme weather events, and how focusing on working together to understand, protect, restore and rehabilitate natural system function can have the most power to effect change. Below is an abridged version of what Bob Sandford said.

Bob Sandford holds the EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. In this capacity Bob was the co-author of the UN Water in the World We Want report on post-2015 global sustainable development goals relating to water.


LEARNING FROM THE BURNING: “We keep talking about adaptation in service of resilience; but more than that we need to adapt now for what is to come,” stated Bob Sandford

Bob Sandford is committed to translating scientific research outcomes into language decision-makers can use to craft timely and meaningful public policy and to bringing international examples to bear on local water issues.

To this end, Bob is also senior advisor on water issues for the Interaction Council, a global public policy forum composed of more than thirty former Heads of State.

Bob is also the author, co-author or editor of more than thirty books.

What Science Tells Us

“The foundation of my work is science. It seems to me that the commandments of science can be reduced to two: tell the truth and stand up for all humanity and for the planet,” says Bob Sandford.

“Good science is not just the sharing of knowledge about the world, it is a candle we light when we want to see and be warmed by the truth.

“There has probably never been a time in history when making what science is telling us understandable to a vastly diverse and often preoccupied public has been more important.

“At the UN we believe that we are at a bottleneck in the evolutionary history of our species where failing to understand and act appropriately on what we know could have devastating impacts on future generations and potentially catastrophic effects on Earth system function for the rest of time.”

“Many prominent scientists are saying that 2018 may be a turning point in human history.”

“The point here is that there is evidence all around us to suggest that if we don’t address the root problem our society, and every economic sector within it, should expect direct and indirect impacts to keep pace with accelerating global hydro-climatic change.”

Learning from the Burning: Sustainability in the Wake of the Summer of 2018

“My work in Canada is principally focused on dispelling the myth of limitless water abundance in this country, bringing international example to bear on Canadian water issues and making scientific research outcomes real to the public and finding ways to link science to the evolution of public and private sector policy,” stated Bob Sandford.

“The premise that keeps me going in this work is that I would rather be afraid now so that we do what is needed to ensure that our grandchildren don’t have to be afraid in the future.”

The Loss of Hydrologic Stationarity 

“Land-use and cover change are only the beginning of the effects human activities are having on the global hydrologic cycle. Our entire Earthly reality is defined by all the ways in which water reacts with nearly every element in the physical world,” explained Bob Sandford.

“Change a few parameters that pertain to water and the world you see out your window becomes different. Some parameters, however, have more influence than others over the nature and function of any given hydro-climatic circumstance.“The changing of a single defining parameter – temperature for example – changes all of the other biogeochemical parameters. If our global temperature changes, an entire new geometry is created around that change. What this causes is the loss of what we call hydrologic stationarity.”

Adapt Now For What Is to Come

“The common experience of disaster could be what brings us together. This could be the turning point,” continued Bob Sandford. “Now that we have been put on notice, what should we do?”

“Climate warming is now a permanently lit match held over not just the forests but the entire geography of the Northern Hemisphere, if not the whole globe. The match is lit, and the only way to extinguish it is to restore balance to Earth system function. This, however, is also something that is within our power to do.

Shrink Our Destructive Footprint While Growing Our Restorative Footprint

“By degrading landscapes and riparian systems over time, nations and entire regions lose the effective buffering effect provided by intact natural processes leaving them exposed to the full force of increasing hydro-climatic variability.

“But it also suggests that the reverse is also true – we can reduce the threat of climate disruption by restoring natural system function. From this we see that this is not the end of the world. It is just the beginning of another.

“We keep talking about adaptation in service of resilience; but resilience implies protecting what we have now. We need to be pre-silient; we need to protect what we have certainly, but more than that we need to adapt now for what is to come.

“We can become both resilient and pre-silient under the aegis of a ‘Restoration Imperative’. Such an imperative goes beyond environment….to restore common purpose and a vision for the future of humanity and the planet.

Call to Action

“But most urgently such an imperative must become an immediately effective vehicle for not just the protection but for the rapid restoration of critical natural system function so that we can restore balance in the world and step back from the climate crisis.

“This is our generation`s moment. More than at any other era in human history this is a time for heroic, committed leadership and relentless citizenship in service of a future in which we not only survive but flourish,” concluded Bob Sandford.

“The components are familiar, so all places have some. But none have all. A process with missing components is not a process. You can add to it, but do not subtract,” advises Storm Cunningham.