Transforming Our World December 14th, 2015

This post was submitted by Alan Wiebe, Watershed Assistant, at the Seine-Rat River Conservation District

Bob Sandford is a leading water scientist at the United Nations Institute for Water, Environment and Health. His job is to make scientific knowledge accessible to the public so we can develop meaningful policies on water-related issues in Canada.

The Seine-Rat River Conservation District (SRRCD) held its annual meeting in November. People from around our district were eager to hear Bob speak on the state of our changing water cycle and what we can do to build stronger, more resilient communities. Here is a summary of what Bob talked about. You can contact our office for a full copy of his transcribed presentation. We can be reached in La Broquerie at (204) 424-5845 or online at

Transforming Our World: Presented by Bob Sandford

Changes to our water cycle are happening right now. This means that we must adapt the way we think about water security. Water security is not just about managing the water that is available. It is about managing greater extremes of abundance and scarcity. It means that water and climate security are inseparable elements of sustainability.

We began to see mega-floods around the world in 2010. They were beyond anything we experienced before. Another mega-flood in the Canadian prairies the following year was so severe that some Saskatchewan farm families came to emergency centres so exhausted that they were unable to hold a pen to fill out the forms that would provide them relief. The water cycle was changing but we did not have the evidence to prove it until later that year.

The University of Saskatchewan showed evidence in the fall of 2011 that the global water cycle is changing. This evidence is confirmed by a report released at the same time from the National Research Council in the United States. The consensus includes that land cover changes, such as deforestation, wetland destruction, urban expansion, irrigation, and other water diversions have a significant impact on the duration and intensity of floods and drought. In other words, the old ways of managing surface water are no longer working and we need to find better ways of building resilience.

Now is an important time to build resilience in response to these extreme disasters. The 2030 Transforming Our World initiative of the United Nations is a global framework for this increased sustainable development. It is the most comprehensive effort to transform our world for the betterment of people and the planet with everything we need to create sustainability included in the agenda.

The biggest challenge is the urgency to make these goals a local priority. It is a unique opportunity to build on existing initiatives for enhancing resilience strategies and technologies.

The 2030 Transforming Our World goal for water is to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable water and sanitation for all. We must first stabilize the increasing human effects of our activities in order to meet this goal and build livable, resilient cities.

Temperature is the single most important factor relating to changes in our water cycle. The entire water cycle is altered by the slightest change in global temperature. This is exactly what we are seeing. The most profound changes relate to how much water a warmer atmosphere can hold. We know that the atmosphere can carry 7% more water vapour for every degree Celsius of warming. This means that a 2°C increase in temperature can carry as much as 14% more water vapour. A 4°C increase in global temperature would carry 28% more water and would drastically change everything for everyone.

Today, we have entered a new era in which human activities rival the processes of nature and we are witnessing new phenomenon that we have never seen before. Atmospheric rivers carrying more and more water vapour in the air are causing flooding at unprecedented levels. These atmospheric rivers, like winds of the jet stream, get their energy from temperature differences between the poles and tropics. The warmer the air, the more water these atmospheric rivers can carry. Other climate-related effects are already happening in Canada and right here in Manitoba.

A quarter of Manitoba’s farmland went unseeded in 2011 due to flood damage. Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan experienced the same magnitude of flooding again in 2014. What happens if the water cycle falls on the side of drought like we saw this past year from Mexico to the Arctic and from Vancouver Island to the Manitoba border?

Agriculture must become restorative and productive to ensure water, food, and climate security. We need another agricultural revolution that places more value on farmers for more than just crop production but also for perpetuating critical Earth functions.

Healthy soils are the best protection for crops during drought and for protection from floods. Healthy soils store carbon and are a means of enhancing natural processes of water purification in urban planning. That is why 200 cities in 209 countries have stopped building new water treatment plants and are effectively investing in watershed restoration that prevents downstream pollution and flooding.

The potential to create a better world exists. Action and change begins at the local level and it is possible to build resilient communities that are desirable places to live in a warming world. We need another green revolution for agriculture that focuses on the integration of water, food and climate security. Canada, and Manitoba in specific, can be a leader in such a revolution but we must first bridge the urban-rural divide by creating understanding between urban and rural concerns.