Achieving sustainable water futures in an uncertain world

The 2021 Global Water Futures (GWF) Annual Open Science Meeting took place May 17-19, 2021, bringing together the GWF community (researchers, affiliates, partners, collaborators, and stakeholders) in a virtual setting to share our latest scientific achievements and success stories, provide updates on end user solutions, and support the actions needed to secure Canada’s water future.  

The meeting featured a variety of virtual programming to enable shared learning and insightful discussions through key events, including keynote talks, panels, and an interactive poster session. These were complemented by parallel sessions, networking, social activities, and workshops for GWF’s Young Professionals. The meeting’s creative programming engaged both researchers and stakeholders in two-way learning and exchanges.

The meeting was organized and co-hosted by our partners from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. While we wished that we could all come together in person in beautiful Waterloo, ON, we were happy to see so many people online. 


GWF2021 continued to build on the themes of the meeting from the previous year. The themes provide the context for the overall program and encourage interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary dialogue and research co-creation. The themes are underpinned by cross-cutting challenges and opportunities that further emphasize solutions across sectors and stakeholders.

The meeting's themes were:

1. Climate-driven changes of water environments in cold regions

This theme examined how climate change will shape future water security in cold regions. Addressing the projected changes in hydrology, biogeochemical cycles and ecological functions, this theme explored the cascading impacts of climate change in cold environments and proposed adaptive and integrated management solutions.

2. From anthropogenic pressures to ecosystem services

This theme examined the complex interactions between human activities and ecosystem services. Addressing a range of interconnected issues related to anthropogenic disturbances of water environments, this theme explored the impacts on the state and function of aquatic ecosystems, and the responses required to safeguard and restore the services they provide.

3. Turning research into policy and management solutions

This theme explored options for translating water research, from the natural, social and health sciences, into concrete and relevant policy and management solutions. Addressing how to effectively respond to water risks and adapt in the face of uncertainty, this theme examined how adopting new or improved practices and tools enhances evidence-based policy and decision-making.

4. Innovations in water science and technology

This theme examined advances in water science and technology and the challenges facing knowledge mobilization and technology transfer. Addressing the increased need for and access to data-supported information and advanced analytics, this will explored innovations in the collection and use of environmental data and the potential to revolutionize decision-making for water management.

5. Knowledge co-creation with Indigenous communities

This theme examined the role of Indigenous co-led and co-produced research in shaping a shared water future. Addressing the need for inclusive solutions and policies that reflect different knowledge systems, this theme explored co-created research, the co-learning of different knowledges, and the experience of different communities working together towards shared water management solutions.

The themes are supported by the following cross-cutting challenges and opportunities:

  1. Transferable knowledge and tools

  2. Predictive modelling and forecasting

  3. (Big) data science and management

  4. Social, economic and health determinants and impacts

  5. Stakeholder engagement and knowledge mobilization

Plenary, Keynote, and Panel Recordings

Chair: Philippe Van Cappellen, University of Waterloo
Opening: Elder Roland Duquette, Mistawasis First Nation
Remarks by:
Baljit Singh, Vice-President Research, University of Saskatchewan
Charmaine Dean, Vice-President Research & International, University of Waterloo
Valérie Laflamme, Associate Vice-President, Tri-Agency Institutional Program Secretariat

Morning Plenary with Keynote Talk
This session features an update on the Global Water Futures program provided by Dr. John Pomeroy, Director of the program, and is followed by a talk by Keynote Speaker Dr. Elena Bennett, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Science at McGill University.

Chair: Philippe Van Cappellen, University of Waterloo

Global Water Futures: Progress, Challenges and Prospects (00:32:35)
Dr. John Pomeroy, Director, Global Water Futures
Dr. Pomeroy provides an update on the Global Water Futures program with highlights from the past year, including successes and challenges, pandemic impacts, and integrating EDI. Dr. Pomeroy looks to the future and what’s on the horizon as to what we can do together next as the Global Water Futures research community.

(Another) Ten Thousand Years of Agriculture and Water (00:55:30)
Dr. Elena Bennett, McGill University
Creating a sustainable and just future will require a major shift in how humans live in, and interact with, the Earth system. But how this shift will take place, and the pathways it will follow, remain vague. Further, visions of sustainable futures differ widely. Inspirational visions can be a key component of transformations to sustainability, helping to shape the very reality that they forecast. But thus far, the global change community has produced very few positive visions of more desirable, just, and sustainable futures for society and nature, or how these might be achieved. How can we think about a better future, how can we measure it, and how can we grow back stronger and more resilient from the pandemic? In this talk, Dr. Elena Bennett discusses efforts to develop a suite of alternative, plausible visions of futures that are socially and ecologically desirable by identifying elements of a Good Anthropocene that already exist, and shows how the science of ecosystem services can be used to assess them. She focuses on phosphorus and its role in water quality to explore how slow variables, long-term legacies, and thresholds influence our ability to plan for an uncertain future.

This morning plenary features two talks by Keynote Speakers Ms. Chelsea Lobson, Programs Director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, and Prof. Danika Littlechild, Assistant Professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University.
Chair: Corinne Schuster-Wallace, University of Saskatchewan

Completing the data-to-impact cycle: The Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network (00:03:40)
Ms. Chelsea Lobson, Lake Winnipeg Foundation
At the centre of Canada, Lake Winnipeg is the world’s 10th largest freshwater lake, recognized nationally and internationally for its ecologically and culturally important habitats. Over the past century, peoples around Lake Winnipeg have witnessed a concerning decline in the lake’s health. Eutrophication – the over-fertilization of freshwater ecosystems with the nutrient phosphorus – is causing increasingly frequent and severe algal blooms that negatively impact water quality and drinking water, recreation and tourism, subsistence and commercial fisheries, lakeshore economies and ecosystem integrity.
In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on the size and multi-jurisdictional nature of the Lake Winnipeg watershed. Too often, unfortunately, the scale of the watershed serves as an excuse for inaction or as an explanation for slow progress in improving the lake’s water quality. In reality, efforts to address Lake Winnipeg’s algal blooms have simply lacked the relevant and necessary data to ensure their success. Community-based monitoring is now filling this evidence gap.
The Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network (LWCBMN) is a collaborative long-term monitoring program designed specifically to identify localized phosphorus hotspots within the larger Lake Winnipeg watershed. This program builds on past research and complements existing agency monitoring programs to create a robust, continuous data set that enables geographic targeting of phosphorus-reduction efforts. With data shared openly through Lake Winnipeg DataStream, LWCBMN provides the evidence base necessary to improve Lake Winnipeg’s water quality through efficient and cost-effective action.

Engaging Indigenous systems in the context of water (00:55:07)
Prof. Danika Littlechild, Carleton University
There are many opportunities and challenges related to engaging Indigenous systems in the context of water in Canada. How should we understand the ideas of reconciliation, Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous rights and responsibilities and their potential interaction with the spheres of science, monitoring, decision-making, and policy development? Danika Billie Littlechild provides an overview of selected issues, constraints and constructive ideas in the very broad, complex and diverse world of First Nations and water in Canada.

Morning Plenary Panel Discussion, Part One – The Role of Science and Policy in Securing Canada’s Water Future

This panel examines Canada’s water future at the interface of policy and science. Hear from scientific and policy experts at municipal, regional, federal and transnational levels on how water research and science fit into the policy landscape for determining Canada’s water future. What are the policy priorities for securing Canada’s water future? What’s needed from scientists and researchers to help shape Canadian water policy? How can we better connect science and research with decision-makers and policy processes? How do we best consider Canada’s water security needs within a binational context?

Moderator: Sean Carey, Professor at the School of Earth, Environment & Society, McMaster University

Mike Schreiner, MPP Guelph, Leader Green Party of Ontario
Javier Gracia-Garza, Special Advisor, Agriculture and Climate Change, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Shawn Marshall, Departmental Science Advisor, Environment and Climate Change Canada; Professor, Department of Geography, University of Calgary
Lou Di Gironimo, General Manager, Toronto Water, City of Toronto
Crystal Davis, Vice President of Policy & Strategic Engagement, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Afternoon Plenary Panel Discussion, Part Two – Collective Solutions for Securing Canada’s Water Future

This panel examines Canada’s water future from the perspective of stakeholders from the broader water community in Canada. Hear from leaders and experts from various organizations representing industry, NGOs and community-based organizations, for a discussion on how diverse actors are shaping Canada’s water future. What role do stakeholders play in carving a path forward – industry, NGOs, Indigenous communities, and citizen science? What are the opportunities and challenges faced by stakeholders in building a sustainable water future for Canada? How can different stakeholders and communities work together, and what is needed to foster collaboration?

Moderator: Jennifer Baltzer, Associate Professor in Biology, and Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change, Wilfrid Laurier University

Kat Kavanagh, Founder and Executive Director of Water Rangers
Kelsey Leonard, Assistant Professor, University of Waterloo
Liz Hendriks, Vice President - Restoration and Regeneration, World Wildlife Fund-Canada
Sondus Jamal, Co-Chair for University of Waterloo Students of the Water Institute Graduate Section (SWIGS)
Mark Fisher, Chief Executive Officer, Council of the Great Lakes Region


Closing (01:13:04)

A wrap-up GWF2021 with a brief summary and highlights from the three days of the program, followed by a closing from Elder Roland Duquette.

Wrap-up: Dr. John Pomeroy, Director, Global Water Futures
Closing: Elder Roland Duquette, Mistawasis First Nation

Parallel Session Recordings

The Vulnerability and Resilience of Northern Ecosystems to Change
Mechanistic Modelling under Future Climates
Groundwater as a cause and cure of water insecurity
From Fish Toxicology to Covid Monitoring
Managing Urban Water Challenges in a Changing Climate
From Modelling to Management, Policy & Practice - Case Studies from Global Water Futures
Valuing Canada's Water Resources and Aquatic Ecosystem Services
Water and Agriculture
Sensors and Observations
Innovations in (big) data science
Improved Tools for Prediction of Water Futures
Best Practices in Indigenous Community Water Research
Indigenous Water Governance and Justice
Co-Creating Research to Advance Access to Clean water in Indigenous Communities

GEWEX Report

GWF is part of the World Climate Research Programme’s GEWEX project (Global Energy and Water Exchanges – see A GWF update and a report on this meeting was published in the GEWEX Quarterly News.