Piecing together the puzzle of effective water management across communities.

Derek Armitage

It doesn’t take an expert in the environment to see that Canada’s precious water systems influence our lives. Lakes straddle provincial borders; rivers traverse municipalities and First Nations; and our vast oceans shape coastal communities in multiple provinces and territories simultaneously.

What does take an expert is the research examining how to better protect aquatic systems under threat. In many cases these threats are directly related to man-made influence on our environment.

For instance, our oceans are under intense pressure from over-fishing and pollution. In many parts of Canada, climate change may put pressure on water supplies already strained by increasing allocations for energy and agriculture.

This is the research focus of Professor Derek Armitage a professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS).

“What we see is a fundamental challenge with fit,” he explains. “It’s the idea that the types of changes that are happening within our aquatic systems, like rapid coral die-off, dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice or unexpected declines in freshwater availability, don’t match our governance systems or our ability to adapt effectively.”

In a case like this, private corporations, multiple levels of government, First Nation’s groups and non-governmental organizations all have what Armitage refers to as separate, “knowledge systems.” These players may recognize that there is a problem with the water, but they have differing understandings of the problem, unique vocabularies and diverging values.

Compounding the problem is the convention of ranking these knowledge systems based on preconceptions of their value – especially in regards to the every-day people who rely on water for their livelihoods.

“Elders or others directly reliant on freshwater or ocean resources do actually monitor changes, they do have to be observant and notice changes because they won’t be successful if they don’t,” Armitage explains. “Our proposition is that the people who are engaged in that area and depend on aquatic resources have a great deal of knowledge of what’s happening. How can we create a flexible governance process to bring these knowledge systems together, along with scientists and policy makers?”

Creating this process requires an academic approach that transcends traditional disciplines. “My DNA is interdisciplinary. To resolve complex problems we need to connect ecology and earth systems with an understanding of the social science context in which these processes are taking place,” he says. “And a lot of these problems are really place specific,” Armitage adds. “What we learn from one individual case can inform other places, but inevitably you need to do context specific research.”

Armitage describes the process as a giant puzzle and he credits his research group, the Environmental Change and Governance Group (ECGG), for taking on different pieces of this challenge, as well as the Faculty of Environment for enabling him and his team to make these connections.

“SERS is a great fit because fundamentally we are about interdisciplinary research. That’s true of the faculty by and large. The problems are really complex and they demand an interdisciplinary approach. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to come here.”