Promoting water security through water soft paths

There is as yet only limited experience with water soft path analysis; even less experience with its application in policy; and none at all as a way promote water security over the long term. Though there is a modest body of published material, the only study that incorporates all elements of soft path analysis was undertaken by Friends of the Earth Canada (2007).

The Canadian analysis involved water soft analysis at three scales: urban, watershed, and provincial. For each of these scales, the study developed three scenarios for water use over the next 30 or 40 years. A Business-as-Usual scenario (really a projection) was compared with the reductions in water use that could flow from policies under a WDM scenario and under a WSP scenario. The three scenarios all use the same "official" expectations of economic and population growth. For brevity, the summary of the urban case study focuses on residential and commercial uses of water, the watershed study on agricultural uses, and the provincial study on industrial uses.


Results for the urban component of the water soft path study were determined for a generalized urban centre in a semi-arid area with a base population of 200,000 in 2005 and 300,000 in 2050 (Brandes and Maas, 2007). As in other urban areas, the bulk of water use is for residential and commercial uses, secondarily for institutional and light industrial uses. The Demand Management scenario is based on fairly rapid uptake of readily available technologies and easily adopted practices, including low-flow and dual-flush toilets, efficient showers and faucets, and water-saving clothes washers. It results in significant savings but not enough to offset population growth. The Water Soft Path scenario adds adoption of composting toilets, waterless urinals, xeriscaping, widespread reuse and recycling, and rainwater harvesting. With these additions, water savings that are more than enough to overcome the expected population growth; indeed, water use in 2050 would be below that in 2000! Implications for improving water security in urban areas are therefore considerable.


The watershed component of the WSP study focused on the Annapolis Valley in the Province of Nova Scotia, which has a maritime climate (Isaacman and Daborn, 2007). Though a comfortable gap seems to exist between the amount of water available and the amount withdrawn, only 10% of the rain arrives between June and August when demands are highest. Withdrawals have exceeded the renewable flow in 12 of the last 40 years during the summer and three times on an annual basis.

Agriculture is the largest water using sector with over one third of total withdrawals. Problems are compounded by a strong tourism sector. Golf courses account for only 2% of annual water use, but, together with agriculture, two thirds of summer use. In the Business-as-Usual projection, surface water would be inadequate to meet demand in at least 1 year in 12 on an annual basis, and nearly every second summer.

Under a Demand Management scenario, annual withdrawal could be reduced by about 40% per year, and by nearly half in the summer. Though this scenario is characterized by widespread adoption of efficient household and agricultural technologies, the Annapolis Valley would still suffer from periods with insufficient surface and ground water. The Soft Path scenario, which adds runoff storage for crop and golf course irrigation, and wastewater recycling and reuse in food processing, results in annual water use that is only half of current summer use. With this scenario, the likelihood of insufficient supply is all but eliminated, and water securely is greatly enhanced.


Ontario, which is Canada's largest and most industrialized province, has a continental climate with wide extremes between summer and winter. Its industrial sector accounts for nearly half of provincial water use (excluding water withdrawn for cooling in the electrical power sector). Many industries are beginning to recycle water (which is already a larger component of gross use than is fresh intake), and, when this approach is extended under the Demand Management scenario, water consumption is cut by 25% in 2031 compared with Business-as-Usual, but is still one third greater than at present (Kay et al., 2007). Even under the Water Soft Path scenario, rates of use are 16% above present levels. Cutting these rates of use would require investment in new plants to incorporate best available technologies from the two biggest water using sub-sectors, transportation equipment and paper and allied products. Shifts in the structure of economic activity in Ontario would likely achieve reductions in water use than greater efficiency with the current industrial mix. Achieving water security through water soft paths requires close look at the most water-intensive industries.


The Canadian Water Soft Path study is the first test anywhere of the application of water soft path concepts to specific political jurisdictions in specific ecological and geographic settings. Though limitations in the study mean that are results are far from definitive, they are strong enough to indicate that water soft paths can achieve water savings that go well beyond those available with demand management. The strength of water soft paths is their ability to identify the potential for structural shifts in living patterns and the economy (and to incorporate climate change). However, such shifts pose a tremendous challenge, for they imply changes in socio-economic, political and perhaps even cultural relationships. Consideration of such changes illustrates the need to incorporate the politics of water and democratic decision-making in any strategy to improve water security.

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