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Water governance across the Canada-US border: not seeing the forest for the trees?

Contribution by Cheryl de Boer: Water knows no borders… but we as people most certainly do.  We set up nations, organizations, programs, policies, governments, businesses and groups based on all sorts of systems, conceptual and geographical boundaries. As a result, increases in development tend to be accompanied by the setting up of additional organizational and governance regimes, further resulting in increased complexity of the institutional framework that guides the on-going development.   When looking at the institutional complexity related to water governance in the Great Lakes region that lies between Canada and the United States, this manner of development is blindingly obvious. 

Increasing settlement in the late 1800’s led to increasing water uses.  The obvious threat that this caused to the value and health of the Great Lakes was met as early as 1909 by the federal governments of both Canada and the US signing the Boundary Waters Treaty. Although just a beginning, it set the stage for the two adjoining countries to treat the waters as a shared bi-national resource.   As residential development, trade and industry further developed in the prosperous region, increasingly complex issues have developed related to the health and management of the lakes: transport and invasive species, deposition of industrial air pollution, pharmaceuticals, hormones and endocrine disrupting compounds affecting fisheries and drinking water and of course climate change impacts related to flooding, droughts, etc.  Each of these issues has been the subject of increasing regulation and attention on both sides of the border, perhaps with each issue itself having a governance regime develop around it. What does this mean for the sustainable governance of the Great Lakes as a bi-national resource in practice?

Currently, there are a number of regulations and policies that are directed specifically to the governance of the Great Lakes as a natural resource.  There are yet an increasing number of policy instruments and tools that add additional complexity to the lives of those working on the daily management of this valuable resource.   Though it would be impossible to assess the value of each individual contribution, it can be useful to analyze the operation of the set of relevant sectoral policies, rules and norms as a whole; something that perhaps is better conceptualized as an “inter-regime”.  By looking at the fragments of the various governance regimes that touch this issue area, one can see if the current characteristics of the set are in line with what we premise to be those of a system which supports adaptive management –something that is widely accepted as being necessary for such as a complex and dynamic resource.  In 2007-2008 interviews and workshops were held with numerous experts from the Great Lakes region to discuss the governance status, present and past as well as opportunities in the future.  A great deal of issues where raised, however a few aspects clearly stood out and the state of the inter-regime could be summarized as extremely complex, relatively incoherent, lacking the necessary intensity in ambition and resources, and as having insufficient flexibility.

How did this happen?  In the 1970’s there was much excitement in the Great Lakes community about the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the reduction of phosphate pollution which successfully brought the massive and beautiful Lake Erie back to life. This was followed by a progressive update, which regarded the ecosystem approach as being the way forward in Great Lakes governance strategies.  A few decades later it appears the results of neglecting to understand and take into account the governance system as a whole have come to the surface.  Despite many successes, efforts for the advancement of the economy have taken place at the expense of many programs aimed at improving social and environmental resiliency. Government programs and policies have continued to address issues through the addition of extra regulations, without sufficient discussion and integration across ministries and borders.

Perhaps looking at the current governance context through this kind of lens enables us to support changes to the governance structures to take more seriously into account the roles of the other interacting regimes.  The traditional response of adding more stringent single issue enforcement mechanisms to address new problems is no longer appropriate given our understanding of the complex nature of the interaction of human and environmental systems.  Are we not in danger of missing the forest for the trees, by focusing our governance efforts too heavily on accountability for specific issue areas and not enough on the real goal… to develop a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the water and all of its users?

Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/water-conservation/water-governance-across-the-canada-us-border-not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees/

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