Manitoba Must Lead, Not Follow, In Water Innovation – for Aug. 26, 2010

Water is never far from the minds of Manitobans – incidents of catastrophic spring flooding across the Prairies and toxic algae washing up on the beaches of Lake Winnipeg this summer dominate our thinking.

What may be less obvious is just how important sophisticated water management will be to ours and our children’s prosperity.

Water management and water technologies present opportunities for innovation and Manitoba has everything to gain by getting this right; flood protection, drought protection and improving the health of Lake Winnipeg, while creating a new clean technology sector in the process.

Last month, the Canadian International Council released a report called Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age. Written by a new generation of Canadian intellectuals, Open Canada bluntly diagnoses Canada’s 21st century strategic challenges – particularly the need for greatly increased research, development and innovation – a position echoed by Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney.


The Open Canada report alerts us that Canada’s energy and water resources put us in the crosshairs, as it describes fierce international competition for natural resources that is altering geopolitics.

Neither this generation of Canadians nor the next should accept less than world-class stewardship of our natural capital. The Open Canada authors urge the creation of a centre for water research to provide policy and technological leadership as the stakes in this sector rise.

IISD has already responded to this challenge with the launch of the Water Innovation Centre in Manitoba with the support of Manitoba Hydro, the Royal Bank Blue Water Fund and the provincial government. We now have a foot in the door, but we need to pay careful attention as our neighbours jockey for position in the water innovation space.

“Clean tech” is now the largest venture capital category, and water technology is a $400-billion annual industry, doubling every four years.


The growth and potential in the water sector has not escaped notice in Ontario, in the aftermath of the Walkerton tainted water tragedy and the Cinderella story of Oakville’s Zenon Inc. – a water technology startup company bought out by GE for $700 million.

At the recent Canadian Water Summit in Toronto, Premier Dalton McGuinty highlighted new legislation intended to stake a large claim for Ontario. The Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act 2010 has two key components. Firstly it provides a new regulatory framework for water sustainability

and water conservation and secondly it facilitates the growth of “globally competitive companies and high-value jobs in the water and waste water sector.”

The Ontario legislation emerged from a study of how jurisdictions, such as Germany, Israel, and Singapore, established sustainable water leadership. In all cases, leading jurisdictions first established a clear, unifying message that water is a top priority and then focused innovation on domestic water management challenges, while incubating water technology sectors that could seize export opportunities.


Ontario has good reasons for aspiring to water leadership, but so does Manitoba.

We oscillate between flood and drought risks in our watersheds relying heavily on drainage, which is essentially a 19th century technology.

We lament natural capital lost as our wetlands disappear. We fear for the health of our beloved Lake Winnipeg, and we debate the science for waste water treatment to protect the lake.

IISD’s Water Innovation Centre has put some important ideas on the table though there is still much work to do.

We have identified Manitoba’s version of the smart watershed as the key to drought and flood protection and nutrient management. We have highlighted the strategic significance of the huge Netley-Libau wetland complex at the mouth of the Red River. We have also identified a potential game changer in the peak phosphorus issue – the nutrient we generally regard as a noxious pollutant is actually a scarce and valuable resource with major technology and economic development implications.


For Manitoba, the focus now must be on innovation and solutions. We must recast the challenge of Lake Winnipeg management as a transformative opportunity for leadership, innovation, and sustainable development. The local business community will play a key role in seizing this opportunity and creating a made-in-Manitoba solution, but a shared vision of what we’re trying to achieve and an enabling policy framework must come first.

As Virgil said, fortune favours the bold.

Hank Venema is the director of the water innovation centre

and the sustainable natural resources management program

for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.


Weoscillatebetweenfloodanddroughtrisks inourwatershedsrelyingheavilyondrainage, whichisessentiallya19thcenturytechnology. Welamentnaturalcapitallostasour wetlandsdisappear.

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