Opinion - Mimi O'Handley: World Water Day - How water defines us and our future

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Monday, March 22, 2021.

Climate change is altering the global water cycle on a massive scale. One way many Canadians will experience and suffer from climate change will be from impacts on their local water resources.  

March 22, World Water Day, is a day to celebrate and reflect on our vital connection to water, and also to evaluate the effectiveness of current water protection measures.  

In Nova Scotia, water is one of our most defining features. The province is surrounded by four different bodies of water, and is home to over 6,500 lakes and more than 360,000 hectares of wetlands. However, like freshwater sources across the world, the province’s water is threatened. Of concern in Nova Scotia, freshwater in coastal areas is especially vulnerable due to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion.  

In the last decade, Canada and Nova Scotia have made progress in creating and strengthening freshwater protection, including promising conversations around the development of the Canada Water Agency. However, legislation and policy need to be further modernized in collaboration with Indigenous communities to include higher consideration for the risks of climate change, and to better mitigate harms from human-caused threats. 

There is also incredible value in the protection of freshwater resources by communities and local citizens, something Indigenous Water Protectors and activists have been leaders in for many years. As we head into spring and the start of building season, it is important to think about how these developments may impact the natural water systems. Wetlands are at particular risk of destruction due to development. Globally, over 64% of wetlands have been lost due to human activity, and as we lose wetlands, we also lose the amazing benefits and services that they provide to both humans and the natural environment. 

Wetlands function like natural sponges, storing water and slowly releasing it. This reduces flood heights, and allows for ground water recharge, which is particularly important in coastal areas during extreme weather events that pose threats of storm surges and floods. Wetlands are also excellent at water filtration: nutrients from fertilizer application, manure, and sewage that are dissolved in the water can be absorbed by microorganisms in the soil of wetlands. This reduces the amount of contaminants that flow into rivers, lakes and the ocean (minimizing the risk of hazardous algae blooms). In addition, wetlands, particularly coastal wetlands, are incredible at storing carbon. According to a GPI Atlantic study, Nova Scotia's wetlands provide $7.9 billion worth of benefits in ecosystem services to Nova Scotians annually.

We need to be better aware of the consequences of wetland infill. Although a small wetland might not store much water, a network of many small wetlands can store an enormous amount of water. Even in cases where an infilled wetland is compensated for through the province’s permitting process, the localized value and natural functions of the original wetland are lost, the hydrological cycle disrupted, and the life relying on that wetland is destroyed.  

Wetland loss from coastal development leave coastlines and the infrastructure that surrounds them unprotected from rising sea levels and strong storms, two threats that Nova Scotia will continue to experience in higher frequency and severity. It is no surprise that during past severe weather events in the province, shorelines and properties that have salt marshes and coastal wetlands were more intact after the storms than those where these nature features had been destroyed. In the face of steadily worsening coastal climate change, now is not the time to be infilling coastal wetlands and building out into the ocean.   

The more we as citizens can prevent the destruction of wetlands, educate ourselves about the importance of wetlands and how to properly identify them, contribute to community monitoring and mapping initiatives, and avoid infilling wetlands on our own properties and in our own communities, the better both we and the natural ecosystems can be protected, especially as we continue to experience the impacts of climate change. This World Water Day let’s honour the natural water systems that sustain us and commit ourselves to their continued protection.  

Op-ed written by Mimi O’Handley, Wetlands and Water Officer with Ecology Action Centre 

Link to source: Mimi O'Handley: World Water Day - How water defines us and our future

See posts related to