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UN expert calls on governments to work with First Nations on water management

A United Nations expert is calling on government officials to partner with First Nations leadership and Indigenous knowledge keepers to help manage water systems like the Lake Winnipeg Basin.

Bob Sandford is the Water Security Chair at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He has authored, co-authored and edited over 30 books on water related issues and assists governments with public policy. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A United Nations expert is calling on government officials to partner with First Nations leadership and Indigenous knowledge keepers to help manage water systems like the Lake Winnipeg Basin.

“The future of Lake Winnipeg right now is uncertain,” said Bob Sandford, who is the Water Security Chair at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. 

“The condition continues to deteriorate and … it’s very important for us now to orchestrate new ways of relating to one another.” 

Lake Winnipeg is the world’s 10th largest freshwater lake by surface area and is the sixth largest lake in Canada. It is threatened by eutrophication, an ecological imbalance caused by too many nutrients — primarily phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers and sewage entering the watershed.

Sandford was speaking at a conference being held in Winnipeg this week called One Basin, One Governance. The goal of the three-day conference is to share information between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, but also figure out ways in which First Nations could be involved in water governance in an official capacity.

“The most pressing issue that we see is that the governance structures that exist presently aren’t adequate to address serious environmental problems like the deteriorating condition of Lake Winnipeg and the impacts that climate disruption will have on the [Lake Winnipeg] basin now and in the future,” said Sandford.

He said government and Canadians in general can learn more about preserving and protecting waterways by heeding the traditional wisdom of Indigenous knowledge keepers.

“Without that, we will be unsuccessful in addressing the kinds of challenges that we face environmentally and socially especially in a warming world with climate change,” he said.

Bringing stakeholders together

The conference was co-organized by the Southern Chiefs Organization and the Red River Basin Commission, a multi-jurisdictional, not-for-profit organization which develops and works on solutions for water issues on the Red River Basin. 

The conference brought together municipal leaders, academics, First Nations leaders and elders, and featured guest speakers like Chief Lee Crowchild (Tsuutina Nation), Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota), and SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels would like to see First Nations leaders and knowledge keepers driving policy conversations on water stewardship. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“We’re looking at a collaborative solution, a comprehensive solution that can mitigate flooding, can look at a lot of the challenges around the lake, the health of Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba,” said Daniels. 

Daniels said it’s important for First Nations people to work with non-Indigenous scientists and leaders, but they also need to be driving the conversation around things like climate change and water stewardship.

“What people need to understand is that Indigenous knowledge is science as well,” he said. 

“It is through trial and error that we have developed our knowledge. And it is for that reason that Indigenous Peoples need to be a part of the conversation.”

He said he hopes the conference can be a starting point for First Nations and municipalities to focus on solutions together.

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