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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Community Engagement and Action

Water Security: Community-Based Engagement and Action in Pursuit of Society’s Highest Ideals


WT Interview with Oliver Brandes, POLIS Project

WT: I have with me Oliver Brandes, he is an economist and a lawyer by training, and he serves as co-Director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria, thanks for doing this.

Brandes: Thank you, I hope you are well!

WT: You too! Can you tell me about how POLIS Project came to be, what is it and why are you doing this?

Brandes: Good questions, the POLIS project was an initiative of the eco-research chair at the University of Victoria, the founder was Michael McGonigal well over 20 years ago now,

The notion is, that the Polis is a concept about how if society works together in a community-focused way, we can achieve and aspire to higher ideals. This comes from the Greek ideals around democracy, and the polis was the city-state, it was about community-based engagement, decision making, and impact. 

The idea was that the project we would take on as part of society, and we would always be building, I call it sometimes an infinity project, it never ends.
We are always working to make ourselves and our society better, so it has high ideals. 

The practical way I got engaged is, I was finishing my law degree, I have a background in restoration of ecological systems and graduate work in economics and public policy, so you can see that I have an interdisciplinary bent, I like to solve problems using every tool in the toolbox.

I worked with Michael McGonigal on several different files, around forestry, sustainable fisheries and community development, and we thought that water was going to be the next big issue, and that was at the turn of the century. I think we were right! Back then you would have to beg people to let you come talk to them about water, you would never see water issues in the newspapers except for maybe, as far as Canada is concerned, about exporting it to our southern neighbours, that was always a controversial issue. Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen it grow to the point where you CAN’T open a newspaper where you don’t see the water headline. Now, I can't keep up with all the requests to come and talk and see what the solutions are, and that’s really where our work is focused, around the premise that we need to engage society around governance, public policy, law reform to make us more resilient and to deal with water in a sustainable way.

WT: How I came upon you was reading a press release from the Real Estate Foundation in BC, how does it come to be that a real estate foundation ends up giving your organization a grant, can you tell me what that grant was for, and what is ongoing about that process?

: Understand that the real estate foundation is unusual, what it basically does - as part of a provincial initiative at arm's length from the Province - as houses and homes, real estate transactions occur, money accrues while these transactions are underway. This money is reinvested back into the communities in a very positive, proactive way. One of their priorities over the last ten or twelve years has been around water. 

We did some work with the real estate association and some other partners about ten or fifteen years ago just emphasizing why real estate home values are really contingent on water. Land doesn’t have much value if there isn’t water connected to it. BC was emerging out of a stupor, a myth of abundance that water wasn’t an issue, and they were beginning to realize that in fact, it was, and that was going to have real implications about where you live how healthy and prosperous your communities are, etc.

So they gave us a grant around the broad intention of what we call the future of watershed governance law and policy, we spend our time exploring how to solve some of these sustainability problems, and we do it in a very practical way, we don’t invent ideas that cannot be implemented, we look at all the different places and how they have responded, what we can learn, and then how do you adapt that to the British Columbia scene.
We work very closely around things like the updating of BC's over 100-year-old water laws, in the creation of the Water Sustainability Act; we have done lots of work around co-governance with Indigenous Nations around watershed governance, in places like the Cowichan up in the north, and the Skeena in the interior, and we look at some of the laws, the rules, the policies the practices that we can do today to begin improving both the resilience and the conservation and sustainability of water, in particular around things like ecological flows, which is the life pulse of a river, lake or stream.


WT: This is an awesome thing to say to WaterToday! How has it changed, the engagement of people, how people look at their own watersheds, how have you seen this change over the last decade?

Brandes: These things always go a little slower than we all would wish. A couple of noteworthy pieces: One, about twenty years ago, some of the pinch points were becoming really apparent. A lot of my work started in 2002-2003, at the time, in BC there was a fairly sizable drought, I got the attention of the provincial government, and we produced some reports. In hindsight, that drought was modest, relatively speaking, and it was an early warning. That helped us engage, but it also began opening some doors, and opening some ideas that we weren’t going to be able to sit on our hands, we had to actually do something. Doing nothing is a choice, that is actually bad. We can’t just live with the status quo.

That is kind of what I call the opening salvo, and that’s when the province and a lot of communities began facing a reality that sadly had become normal. 

So, what was considered a drought is now every third year or so. In fact, this last summer BC probably made global news because in one night a firestorm hit one town and wiped it out because it was part of an intense heat dome, heatwave effect that has huge implications and was part of a much bigger drought, the likes of which we never saw. So, twenty years ago, it was like the once in a century drought and now we have them every five years and they keep getting worse. So, the appetite for solutions are much bigger and better, because people right at the community scale are living with it in a way that they have never had to live with it, they could hide from it as long as the tap turns on, or the hose turns on, and that’s one of the things that has changed.

We now see the groundswell of people feeling it, demanding more. 

BC had a 100-year-old law, basically unchanged. You can imagine what BC might have looked like in the 1890s, gold rush era, lots of settlers coming in, lots of conflicts, Indigenous people largely ignored, so you have this development mentality and that was how the laws were created at that time, and that was still in effect. So, we were able to infuse some ecological considerations, environmental flows, watershed level planning, but not just planning. Every community has a watershed plan and most of them collect dust on the shelf – but legal tools that force both thresholds and objectives and standards, are the kinds of tools that are now available. So, you see a multi-level change occurring as society begins to realize that water actually connects to all the issues of the day: food security, wild salmon stocks, climate impacts, prosperity, economic certainty, conflict, the list goes on.

WT: Can you tell me about Green Legal Theory, and what it is?

Brandes: That was the work of the founder, Michael McGonigal, Eco-research Chair. Green Legal Theory is the idea that the environment is something much more than just a sector. There is an idea that you can have a sector, there is education, there’s environment and it's just sort of one of many sectors. The whole idea of ecological governance and Green Legal Theory is that the environment permeates everything and so it needs to affect our institutions, how we organize ourselves, how we think about education and how we think about the laws.

A classic example, water was the living embodiment of this, where water, in the legal system, was completely treated as a commodity, separate from its ecological grounding. Water as something necessary for life, fundamental for food, was just an input to a production system, so you get the idea – simple example, in the law, groundwater is separate from surface water. Ecologically, that’s nonsense. In fact, rainwater, surface water, lakes, aquifers they are all integrated, they connect to the watershed in an integrated way. Water is not even separate from land, it's part of an integrated whole, you have riparian areas and these really critical aspects, fish populations, the ecological web. Green Legal Theory says we need to break from the notion that the environment can be just broken down like bits and pieces in a machine, and instead say its something that’s holistic and integrated.

 If you were to create a legal system that pays attention to that, you would organize yourself, your communities, how you make decisions, very differently and you would think quite differently about the laws the institutions put in to ensure we don’t cross these thresholds and collapse these watersheds or run our aquifers dry or pollute the system to such a point that life can’t sustain itself.

WT: I notice your group talking about something else that is important, and that’s Political Ecology. Can you tell us about that?

Brandes: Political ecology is a way of looking at the world. When we think about its origin, or its predecessor, political economy, was the idea of how we create wealth as a society and how that informs or changes how we organize ourselves. Political ecology says, how we create wealth is from our ecological systems, whether we are extracting wealth from timber or minerals or whatever, it has implications both in who benefits and who has to deal with the consequences. So, in a practical way, our political system often is disconnected from either the community needs and community health, so there is a scaling problem, and then there is this consequences problem. When you have cycles that run in two- and four-year terms and sometimes shorter, you don’t get to take that long arc view. So, that’s where you must think about things like accountability, governance, and legitimacy and how communities get involved. They can’t just react to the latest hot button issue; they need deeper and long term planning.

That’s what POLIS is about a community engaged in an ongoing way to inform decisions, making decisions on behalf of our larger communities, and we are not doing that very well, at least from an ecological perspective.

WT: What do you think they could do differently, why aren’t they doing it differently? That’s what we as reporters struggle with, it’s just talking points after talking points, and years later, coming at the issue, just another talking point. Why is this not getting any traction?

Brandes: I think there is a couple of reasons, one we just touched on, we are talking now on things well beyond water. When you’ve got a four-year electoral cycle you have a problem because you are forced to think in short term, if you are looking at a project to get us off an extraction mindset, there may be some consequences in the short term. Maybe some jobs have to shift, lifestyles have to shift, there are winners and losers. The problem is, the losers speak loudest, so often that can affect the risk appetite There's is lots to be said about how party politics work, something that certainly affects things. Why politicians make promises and don’t always fulfill them, I can’t solve that, but I can say, on the environment and in water, we get lots of promises in water, and we don’t always fulfill them. So, we underinvest in our ecological systems, which means we pave over our wetlands for the short-term benefit of some development. Where you take wetlands out of the system, you have a natural system that keeps water clean, ensures biodiversity, provides rich habitat for salmon, but when we are making the decision to turn it into a development, those don’t enter, those issues show up five years later, seven years later when we see an at-risk, collapsing ecological system around salmon, for example.

The disconnect there is time and I’d say community appetite. The people who will benefit in the short term, and some of it is legit, housing is a real concern, but how can we think about housing as a long-term answer while keeping in mind the need to keep healthy, functioning ecosystems, parks, natural areas as part of how we achieve good housing? 

WT: What’s next for POLIS, and what’s next for you, all these huge subjects? I can see the public is buying in to water much more than they ever did.

Brandes: I am massively impatient, but I have stubbornness, and patience as far as making system shift. Societal shifts don’t happen in weeks, months or even years, they take serious time.

That’s why I do the work I do, the infrastructure to build a proper foundation, with the governance, with law and policy, you have to do that work. We are rebuilding our ability to work together, collaborating at the community level, but also, putting the rules in place, so when we cut down forests, denude a watershed or over pump an aquifer that there are consequences, and we can better connect the cause and effect. So, what’s next for POLIS is, isn’t it just to continue that work? Lots of people can provide the criticisms, I look at “what can we do about it”.

If we know we have drought as a serious ongoing concern, well how do we organize ourselves, provincially, regionally, locally, nationally, so that we can respond to drought? We have a federation in Canada, so we have many layers. Water is interesting, it’s not mentioned once in the Constitution, yet it’s a purview of every level of government: Indigenous governments, local, provincial, federal, so you need to think about what the role of each is. Drought policy, allocating water, both for industry and for human use is fundamental. How do we share, how do we work together? That’s what we will do until we get it right. Back to POLIS as the infinity project, we might not get there anytime soon.

WT: We will follow up with another interview, thanks for this, and have a nice day.


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