This issue of Alternatives focuses on water soft paths. For most people this statement invites the question: What are water soft paths? Though noun and adjective have been reversed, water soft paths share a common heritage with the soft energy paths developed in the 1970s by a group of researchers including Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.

Lovins did some of his earliest work on soft energy paths in Canada, along with a group of Canadian analysts. The results of this effort first appeared in Alternatives in 1979/1980 (Vol. 8:3/4 and Vol. 9:1) and three years later it became a book, Life After Oil, authored by Robert Bott, John Robinson and myself.

Like its energy cousin, a water soft path involves treating a natural resource, water in this case, as a service rather than as an end in itself. It involves envisioning the water future we want and then devising ways to get there through a process known as backcasting. It insists on giving ecosystem preservation priority over resource exploitation, and it incorporates a willingness to challenge specific end-uses by asking if we really need to use water for a given purpose. Soft paths depend on ingenuity rather than “hard” steel and concrete to overcome resource problems – hence the term, soft.

There are important economic, institutional and physical differences between energy and water management. This is one reason why it was so important to study how a soft path could be applied specifically to water. Friends of the Earth Canada, in collaboration with researchers in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia, has completed a two-year study to apply the soft path in Canada. It builds on Lovins’ groundbreaking effort, but is the world’s first comprehensive application of the concept to water.

Unfortunately, the Canadian government has been slow in following the advice of those who recommended the country move to soft energy paths. Had it done so two decades ago, Canada would be well ahead of its Kyoto targets.
Will the Canadian government be equally slow in adopting water soft path prescriptions? As Susan Holtz indicates in her article on policy, concern about climate change is one of several environmental threats that could “provide a springboard to broaden water-related reforms into water soft path policies.” In fact, water soft path ideas already appear in some official documents, but many barriers to adoption persist.

The choices are clear. Either we adopt water demand-management practices immediately, and gradually shift to soft path planning over the longer term, or Canada will face both physical and economic aridity of our own making.

This water soft path issue of Alternatives will prepare you to make individual choices and to vote for community, provincial and national policies that will be necessary for Canadians to remain as hydraulically blessed in the future as they have been in the past.

David B. Brooks is a natural-resource economist and a member of Alternatives’ editorial board. He was a founding director of Canada's Office of Energy Conservation, director of the Ottawa Office of Energy Probe, and, for the last 14 years of his formal professional career, associate director for environment and natural resource studies at Canada's International Development Research Centre. When he is not in a canoe, he identifies ways to conserve fresh water. 

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