Thinking Like A Watershed: Developing Water Sustainability for Canada and Beyond


Water & Watershed Sustainability

Oliver Brandes and the POLIS Water Sustainability Project team are finding an ever-increasing interest and sophisticated dialogue around issues related to water and watershed sustainability in Canada.

“Across the country, governments, decision makers, civil society, and people from across sectors are realizing the critical importance of clean, accessible fresh water, and the need for innovative solutions to the governance challenges facing this vital resource,” states Oliver Brandes.

Across Canada Initiatives

Almost every region around the country is seeing significant action on water policy and law reform. For example:

The POLIS Water Sustainability Project is actively engaged with all these processes, providing research and input, and mobilizing knowledge to help Canada move towards a more holistic and sustainable approach to water management and governance.

Concept of Watershed Governance

Currently, much of Oliver’s work is focused on the concept of watershed governance. The growing challenges of climate change, water scarcity, and population growth have signaled a need to move this discussion forward. Watershed governance requires a change in perspective.

“Moving beyond our traditional municipal or provincial boundaries, watershed governance requires planners and managers to consider the complex interaction of natural water flow and other natural processes with human activities. Across Canada and all over the world, a shift to watershed-scale governance is beginning to take place,” Oliver reports.

“To reinforce this opportunity for significant change, the Water Sustainability team has developed a sophisticated body of work and has been focusing on improving outreach and discourse around the concept of, and the benefits associated with, watershed governance.”

Oliver’s goal is to engage the key players in government, civil society, professional and academic networks, and across sectors to enable more distributed and collaborative forms of decision-making that emphasize watersheds as the critical scale for both management and governance.

Oliver is interested in answering the question of how to best build capacity, flexibility, and resilience into society’s broader process of decision-making, and how to enable watershed governance as the foundation of water sustainability into the 21st Century.

For more updates on the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, check out its latest newsletter.


Oliver M. Brandes is a political ecologist and has been part of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance since 2002. He serves as Co-Director and leads the Water Sustainability Project.

  • He holds a Masters in Economics from Queens University, a Law Degree from the University of Victoria, and has diplomas in ecological restoration and international relations.
  • Oliver was recently appointed to the Province’s Water Act Modernization Technical Advisory Committee and the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy Governance Expert Committee.
  • He is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Environment & Resource Studies. Oliver’s current work focuses on water sustainability, sound resource management, and ecologically based legal and institutional reform.

As the Water Sustainability Project leader, Oliver manages an interdisciplinary team of researchers and provides strategic water policy and governance advice to all levels of government, as well as numerous national and local non-government and funding organizations.

  • He has helped found a number of key organizations active on freshwater protection, including the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW-Canada).
  • Oliver has authored over 100 academic and popular articles and major research reports.

In 2009, he helped lead the writing of Making the Most of the Water We Have: The Soft Path Approach to Water Management (Earthscan 2009), which brought together the results of the first-ever, international comprehensive water soft path study.