Manitoba’s water resources are precious natural assets that shouldn’t be taken for granted – they underpin the wellbeing of each of Manitoba’s producers, industries, communities and residents. For that reason, EMILI is proud to have played a role in recent public  engagement activities to help inform the Manitoba Government’s development of a new water management strategy.

In the twenty years since Manitoba last created a comprehensive plan to protect our province’s water quality and supply, the world has become a much different place. Climate change especially has arrived sooner, and in a more severe way than most models anticipated; new opportunities have opened up as well. We therefore now have a generational opportunity to ensure Manitoba’s water is managed effectively well into the future.

Climate change will bring even greater moisture extremes

The past 18 months have given a glimpse of the challenges that lay ahead.

Unrelenting heat waves combined with record-low precipitation levels in the spring and summer of 2021 produced drought conditions that scorched crops and at one point prompted water rationing in the Morden area. The municipality of St. Laurent in the Interlake region was forced to declare an agricultural state of disaster that July. Local ranchers were on the verge of making the unthinkable decision of prematurely selling or culling their livestock due to barren grazing land and vanishing water dugouts.

Manitoba’s other emerging climate threat is a familiar one, and is poised to get much worse: A 2019 report from the federal government predicts that climate change will increase Canada’s precipitation levels in winter months, which will exacerbate spring flooding.

This will carry significant financial risk. The cost of Manitoba’s 2011 flooding was estimated to be well over $1 billion, while the cost of the 1997 Red River flood exceeded $700 million. If current global warming trends continue, these devastating once-in-a-century flood events could be commonplace within a matter of decades.

Amid challenges lay economic opportunities

However, the scope of a new provincial water management strategy should not be limited to adapting to more extreme weather.

photo of lake amongst trees and grass with blue sky
Click here to learn more about Manitoba’s Water Management Strategy

It should also serve to strengthen key economic sectors and conserve natural ecosystems while enabling healthier, more sustainable communities for Manitoba’s growing population. The Winnipeg area alone is likely to reach 1 million residents within 20 years, while rural communities often cite poor water accessibility as a major barrier to their development, aggravating Manitoba’s rural-urban economic divide.

Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, worldwide food production will need to increase by upwards of 70 percent by mid-century in order to meet demand as the global population grows from 8 billion people at present to a projected 9.7 billion in 2050. Sustainably managing Manitoba’s water resources in a way that provides reliable, and reliably adequate water supplies to agricultural producers and agri-food processors amid seasonal and year-to-year moisture variation could position Manitoba as a global leader in food exports, especially sustainable protein.

Addressing water access issues will help optimize investment in agri-food processing sites – be it expanding current facilities or establishing new ones. Value-added processing of Manitoba’s raw agricultural commodities is one of the biggest economic opportunities available to the province, providing reliable long-term revenue and stable, full-time jobs. Meanwhile, boosting the amount of water available for agricultural production, including through irrigation, while still accounting for ecosystem needs, will create the capacity for high-value crops like vegetables, fruits, micro-greens and other items to be produced in greater quantities alongside protecting traditional crops from the negative effects of an increasingly variable climate

Harnessing new technologies will be necessary to help Manitoba achieve these goals, by enabling long-term strategic leadership at the provincial and local levels. Water supply and demand, and water quality, are all interlinked in complex economic, environmental and social ways; developing tools that can utilize machine learning and data analytics in relation to water quality, supply, demand and delivery will help keep decision-makers informed and more accurately sketch out future water scenarios that require accounting for a high degree of uncertainty.

Whether it’s identifying malfunctioning water infrastructure before it breaks down, more quickly diagnosing new contaminants in our rivers and lakes, or sounding the alarm over droughts and floods months before they arrive, generating greater lead time to deal with all these scenarios will make them less costly and disruptive – to communities, industry and our environment.

Much of Manitoba’s natural beauty and economic competitiveness is centred around the province’s water resources. As the Manitoba Government develops its initial action plan to implement its new water management strategy, we look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure water in Manitoba remains carefully managed for years to come.

Learn more about EMILI’s strategic water projects and recommendations.

Written by Kyle Hiebert, EMILI Senior Program and Policy Analyst