Panel wades into global debate

(Edmonton) Three water experts received honorary degrees Thursday in a special conferral ceremony at the University of Alberta’s Timms Centre.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, Steve Hrudey, U of A professor emeritus in analytical and environmental toxicology, and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the board of Nestlé, were all recognized for their efforts to tackle one of the most urgent challenges of our time—access to safe, clean water.

“Each of these exceptional individuals is quite literally trying to change the world, and they are succeeding,” said U of A President Indira Samarasekera. “Government policy has changed because of them. New farming methods are being adopted around the world, and much better environmental monitoring is going on in India and here in Alberta.”

A passionate water activist and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, Narain has successfully galvanized action in India on the need for water security, using rainwater harvesting to augment resources and pollution control to minimize waste. She has been listed by the US journal Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals.

In her acceptance speech, and in a panel discussion following the conferral ceremony, Narain pointed out that in India, as in many developing countries, livelihood is often directly linked to scarce and inconsistent rainfall.

“Water stress adds to the burden of disease,” said Narain, who was honored with a doctor of laws degree. “It destroys livelihoods and devastates agriculture… If we do not get our water art and science right, then we will seriously jeopardize our common future.”

Hrudey was recognized with an honorary doctor of science for his leadership in environmental health sciences and risk management, and for his contribution to a number of high-profile expert panels including the Research Advisory Panel to the Walkerton inquiry a decade ago.

He argued that we live in a “misinformation age,” especially concerning issues of water management. Many commonly held views about the risks of water contamination are simply wrong, he said, which was nowhere more evident than during the Walkerton tragedy that killed seven and made 2,000 ill from contaminated drinking water.

Much of the testimony during the Walkerton inquiry held that “once the water became contaminated, there was nothing the operators could have done to prevent the tragedy,” he said. “That testimony was absolutely wrong, but it went unchallenged at the time.”

Brabeck-Letmathe, also conferred with a doctor of laws, was recognized for his leadership in Nestlé’s implementation of water management strategies. An active member of the foundation board of the World Economic Forum, he leads a worldwide project on water resources.

He argued that no “dogmatic or ideological approach” can provide solutions to a global crisis that sees one billion people without adequate access to water for their basic needs: “In many cases where such approaches were applied, they made things even worse for those who suffer the most.”

All three recipients elaborated on their positions during a panel discussion following the ceremony, hosted by CBC’s Diana Swain and guided by the lead question, who speaks for the water?

Watch the panel
Who Speaks for Water?

Brabeck-Letmathe said water is often wasted and taken for granted, especially in industry and agriculture, because it has not been assigned value.

“How can you accept, when we know there are shortages of water, that 60 per cent is being lost through leakages in developing countries, and 30 per cent in Europe,” he said, adding that too much emphasis is placed on the supply side in discussions about solutions to water scarcity and not enough to demand and the search for less wasteful “water-wise” ways of managing water.

Narain underscored the conflict over access to water in India and other countries, pointing out that, in North America, the fight over the issue is more academic, happening in conferences and seminars. “But in my part of the world it is real. People get shot over it – people die over water. And the fight is over the allocation of water between agriculture and growing cities and industries.”

She argued that a major hurdle in seeking technological solutions to water scarcity is the “arrogance of science and engineering” that fails to take local environments into consideration: “One of the biggest problems we have seen is a scientific profession that doesn’t teach humility about nature.”

Hrudey said the Walkerton tragedy proved that “Canadians were then, and are still today, complacent about water. It’s taken for granted, and people resist paying more for safe and efficient water delivery service.

“There has to be a willingness to do the thing right,” he said, echoing Brabeck—Letmathe’s view that whether water delivery is public or private matters little. What does matter is that it’s done “competently and smartly.”