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Spring flooding – let’s get our story right

People help fill sandbags to protect property in a flooded area of Constance Bay northwest of Ottawa on April 26, 2019. Photo by Kamara Morozuk/The National Observer

The floods that have devastated so much of Eastern Canada this spring have been cited as a “wake up call” that climate change is real. Many reports of the flooding cite climate change as the cause. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has named climate change as the culprit and several journalists noted that the flooding probably forced the federal Conservatives to take climate change seriously and promise to come up with a plan to tackle it.

While no doubt climate change is a major factor in the floods that ravaged so many communities, it would be a mistake to lay all the blame there. For one thing, when most people talk about climate change, they are referring to a fairly specific definition of a climate negatively affected by an overload of greenhouse gas emissions. So their solution is all about reducing those emissions, as are their demands for action.

For another, the preferred solution put forward is carbon pricing, and is quickly becoming the flash point for the upcoming federal election. If you are for the climate, you are for carbon pricing. The problem with this simplistic solution is that it might lull many into thinking we have done what is needed and need do no more. This would be a travesty and unlikely to help us meet our climate goals, especially if another export pipeline is built.

But most important is that by concentrating on this narrow definition of climate change as the cause of these floods, we are in danger of missing a greater culprit: our collective abuse of our lakes, rivers and groundwater. Canadians take our water for granted. We have a “myth of abundance,” having been raised to see ourselves as water rich. We see water (and nature) as a resource for our pleasure and profit and have polluted, diverted, dammed, over-extracted and mismanaged our water sources mercilessly.

We have urbanized rapidly, paving over water-retentive rural landscapes and destroying streams and watersheds in our cities. Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravcik has studied the water cycle in his own country and quantified the amount of rainfall that is no longer able to be absorbed by the soil due to urban sprawl. Our current methods of intensive industrial food production also destroy water-retentive soil, making it hard for floodwaters to find their way underground.

We are also destroying wetlands and forests, both of which are crucial for watershed protection and flood prevention. Canada has lost as much as 70 per cent of its wetlands in settled areas, and we now lead the planet in the degradation of previously untouched forests. And, as aquatic ecologist Les Stanfield wrote recently in the Globe and Mail, we have not protected the small water bodies that drain 70 to 80 per cent of a watershed’s catchment area. He calls those wetlands, swales and springs the “capillaries” of the land that provide the true capacity of a watershed to store water in times of overflow.

So please, as we try to assess the cause of these devastating floods, let us take the time to get our analysis right. We could curb every greenhouse gas emission in the world tomorrow (and transitioning to alternative energy sources must be a core goal) but we would still have a global water crisis. It is time to create a new water ethic that assesses the impact on water of all that we do and build a movement to honour, protect and restore our precious watersheds. Let this be our takeaway from these awful weeks.

Maude Barlow is the Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and the author of Boiling Point, Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse and Canada’s Water Crisis.

This opinion article was originally published in the National Observer.