Water insecurity requires interdisciplinary solutions

July 26, 2016

When Dr. Karen Bakker arrived on the shores of Lake Ontario in Hamilton for her undergraduate degree at McMaster University, she was looking forward to spending some time on the beach.

She would be disappointed. The main part of the lake at the time was completely inaccessible, ringed by industrial buildings, train tracks, and rusting old worksites– some of which were heavily contaminated by the industries of the past. There was no way of enjoying the water that she had so looked forward to, so she set about figuring out how to clean it up.

“I just thought it was shocking that this was the case, and I did my undergraduate thesis on waterfront regeneration”, says Dr. Bakker.

Her passion for clean, accessible water for all has not dwindled in the intervening years, and the world’s need for new solutions to water problems has only increased. Bakker estimates that “80 per cent of the world’s population faces a high-level water security or water-related biodiversity risk.”

Industrial development near Hamilton, Ontario, where Dr. Bakker completed her undergraduate degree.

On January 29 and 30, 2014, Dr. Bakker brought together a group of experts on water innovation from around the world for a workshop. Water and Innovation: An Interdisciplinary Exploration was held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

The Exploratory Workshop was an effort to identify and work toward solving some of the key problems facing water security initiatives, by creating space for an interdisciplinary conversation about water.

While much of the talk around water security relies on scientific advances alone, Dr. Bakker believes that there is more to be done to implement novel technological solutions at the policy and governance level.

“Addressing that gap requires interdisciplinary teams to work together to figure out how to get the scientists talking to policy makers and practitioners to make sure that these great ideas actually get out there and achieve something,” she says.

Supporting her interdisciplinary work is the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, where Dr. Bakker is a Faculty Associate, and which sponsored the January workshop.

“They’re the jewel in the crown at UBC”, says Dr. Bakker. “They enable you to make connections you wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.” 

Dr. Karen Bakker talks with BC Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, Andrew Wilkinson during a panel at January’s Workshop.

These sorts of connections are especially important when confronting problems at what Dr. Bakker calls the “water-energy-food nexus.”

“The phrase ‘water-energy-food nexus’ refers to the fact that there are tradeoffs between water for drinking and agricultural uses, [and] water for energy production.”

Each of these competing water uses does something vital for modern society, and each creates conflicts for local water supplies. Luckily, says Dr. Bakker, there is low-hanging fruit to be had in terms of finding efficiencies.

For example, Kelowna, BC, has increased in population by 30 per cent since 1996. In that time, due to the application of rising tariffs on water use, the overall water consumption for the city has only increased by two per cent.

These types of innovations can drastically reduce the harmful effects of development. But for Dr. Bakker, water innovation isn’t just about mitigating the inevitable damage done by industry, agriculture and personal consumption. A new approach, called regenerative sustainability, is about leaving something better behind.

“We’re actually exploring ways to manage water, and land, and resources, and ourselves– which of course are all integrated systems– to ameliorate the environment, to improve water quality, to leave the environment better than it was before,” says Dr. Bakker.

Since her time in Hamilton with its polluted foreshore, Dr. Bakker has worked throughout the world on water security issues. It’s these experiences that inspired her to plan the January workshop.

“I’ve done a lot of work in developing countries and seen the impact that small innovations can have on community health and livelihoods,” she says.

Small-scale innovation is not limited to faraway places where the technology hasn’t yet arrived. Many of the same issues affect us here in Canada, she says, especially on First Nation reserves. A 2011 government assessment of water quality on reserves found that 39 per cent of water systems were at “high risk”, posing a significant threat to health and the environment, while another third had other deficiencies. 

“We’re not immune to some of the biggest water security challenges the world faces,” says Dr. Bakker. “I continue to feel a sense of urgency about that.”