We need a new conversation about water and about the human relationship with the natural world. And we need a new conversation about the meaningful role for all citizens in determining a sustainable water future.
The development of the Water Act provides us with an opportunity to have this conversation.
In current discussions, as in The White Paper (“A Water Act for Prince Edward Island”), water is often referred to as a “resource“ or “our most precious natural resource”. But this description reflects a problematic attitude toward water and the natural world.
– When water is seen as a resource, its value lies in how we humans can use and exploit it. We become “takers” and “consumers” of water, rather than stewards or guardians. We minimize the intrinsic value of water, and its role in supporting the healthy ecosystems required by all other species.
– “Our” water assumes ownership, and the right to do what we wish with water. But humans have no more claim to water than do the fish or the plants. We are part of a larger community of life that is interdependent with water. We have no special entitlement.
The White Paper reflects another troubling common assumption in our current perspective on the environment. Water is “managed” through a “risk assessment” approach. We come to regard certain levels of risk as acceptable (e.g. nitrate levels) and not as urgent issues requiring immediate solutions.
The risk assessment approach itself reflects a problematic relationship with the environment. The recurrent issues in our waters come from a willingness to accept just such risks: high nitrate levels, anoxic conditions, pesticide contamination, fishkills, dry stream beds. We continuously take unacceptable risks with “our most precious natural resource.”
The new conversation about water and the Water Act begins with a clear goal and purpose. In the White Paper, the goal is: “…to protect the quality and quantity of the island’s water and ensure that our water supply is healthy and sustainable now and into the future.”
We believe the goal of the Water Act should be “to protect and ensure the health of all aquatic ecosystems.” Only healthy ecosystems can provide the quantity and quality of water to support the needs of all human and nonhuman beings for all generations.
Making ecosystem health our priority requires that we adopt the precautionary principle in assessing risk: we have an obligation to protect the environment from harm whenever we can, even if scientific evidence is incomplete.
The Water Act should reflect key shared values. Water is a human and nonhuman right, part of the right to a healthy environment. Water is a common good and a public trust. No one owns water and we are all its guardians.
Ongoing citizen involvement in a transparent and informed process is essential in this new conversation, continuing well beyond the defined consultations into the development and implementation of the Water Act.
The Water Act is an opportunity to forge a different relationship with water and the natural world grounded in respect for what is truly precious to us. Our sustainable water future requires conservation, where we use only what we need rather than all that we want. We must be caretakers of water, and demand a Water Act that ensures the ongoing health of all aquatic ecosystems.