March 17, 2023

Sustainability of high-mountain water sources focus of new UNESCO Chair

UCalgary named host institution for international program to benefit communities reliant on ‘water towers of the Earth’
Peyto glacier
Peyto Glacier, Banff. Mark Ferguson, Global Institute for Water Security

Calgarians are among the nearly four billion people worldwide who depend on the well-being of high-mountain water for survival. Our drinking water supply, agriculture, power, energy industry and surrounding ecosystems all rely on the snowpacks, rainfall and glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, one of the ‘water towers of the Earth’.

Climate change is endangering critical mountain water sources like the Canadian Rockies snowpacks and glaciers, with potential for dire implications. To address the challenges of sustaining and managing these mountain waters, UNESCO has announced the creation of the UNESCO Chair in Mountain Water Sustainability. The chair will be co-held by six international world-class water researchers and hosted by the University of Calgary.

The chairholders will work collectively to improve how we forecast the impact of climate warming on water sources, develop new climate change mitigation measures, and increase the resilience of communities reliant on mountain waters. They will use a holistic approach to address the complex and interconnected environmental, economic and social issues of mountain-based systems.

But they won’t do it alone — vital to their plans are collaboration and co-creation of research with local water users and Indigenous knowledge-holders. Together, they will create networks that will observe water ecosystems and develop methods to ethically braid Indigenous and western science in pursuit of high-mountain water sustainability.

Fred Wrona

Fred Wrona

Chairholders include two UCalgary faculty members:

  • Professor Frederick Wrona, PhD, University of Calgary (chair co-lead)
  • Dr. Kerry Black, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Civil and Sustainable Engineering, Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary

“The co-ordinated international research and educational network created by this chair will bring new and timely solutions that bridge western and Indigenous knowledge systems,” says Wrona, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science at UCalgary.

“It will help build the necessary resilience and adaptation strategies to ensure the long-term sustainability of mountain-based communities, economies and ecosystems.”

Kerry Black

Kerry Black

Wrona and Black are working with other chairholders from Western Canada, Chile and Nepal:

  • Professor John Pomeroy, PhD, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Saskatchewan, Canmore (chair co-lead and primary chairholder)
  • Professor James McPhee, PhD, Department of Civil Engineering, Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile
  • Dr. Dhiraj Pradhananga, PhD, associate professor of hydrometeorology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace, PhD, associate professor, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon

“The chair was specifically constructed to establish a North-South America and East-West (Asia-North and South America) network of mountain-related research,” says Wrona. Each scholar brings a distinct research focus from their geographic region to the chair, making it a diverse and transdisciplinary initiative with built-in opportunities for international impact.

“Chairholders will have to find the regionally appropriate and problem-specific solutions and be sure not to force a one-solution-fits-all approach, but to listen to local needs and to co-develop the most appropriate solutions in each of the regions,” says Pomeroy. 

To do so, chairholders will proactively work with local mountain-based communities and relevant stakeholders and decision-makers. The chairholders want to facilitate a paradigm shift toward transdisciplinary, community-based research that results in integrated solutions to the unique and complex water management challenges faced by each community.

“The chair will provide a unique avenue to pursue truly transdisciplinary approaches to water stewardship in mountain regions, through inclusion of community-based participatory research methodologies with a focus on knowledge translation and mobilization,” says Black.

This chair is unique in that it will foster co-development of research processes with Indigenous nations, focused on decolonizing methodologies that respect Indigenous rights and ensure meaningful participation of Indigenous communities.

“Water problems emerge at the interface of a complex relationship between the state of the natural resource, infrastructure, systemic factors such as governance structures and social norms, and individual factors such as agency, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and gender,” says Schuster-Wallace.

“The chair represents a way to bring all of this together in ways that focus on community-driven, evidence-informed equitable and sustainable water management and access solutions.”

And time is of the essence. “The impacts of climate change on mountain snow and ice, water and ecosystems are rapidly accelerating,” says Pomeroy. “These environments are changing even before we fully understand their coupled interactions and before we have reliable predictions of the impacts of climate change on downstream populations and how these might be managed.”

“The greatest opportunity of this chair,” says Wrona, “is to provide timely and actionable knowledge to mountain water-dependent communities and relevant sectors on how to build resilience and ensure the long-term sustainability of water availability and quality under an increasingly changing climate.”

The UNESCO Chairs Network builds on collaboration to advance training, research, and program development in higher education. It builds connections among universities, civil society, local communities, researchers and policy-makers. Learn more.

For more water research, join us at Accelerating Change: World Water Day Research Talks on March 21, 2023 at UCalgary. Celebrate World Water Day and hear how UCalgary scholars are Accelerating Change through innovative water research. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and sustainability-minded citizens are all welcome. Register now