Cape Town, South Africa, is preparing for a "Day Zero" - a day when the authorities predict municipal wells will run dry.  According to the statement from Cape Town's Mayor, Day Zero is expected mid-May, 2018.  The Mayor urges that: "All Capetonians must ... continue to use no more than 50 litres per person per day to help stretch our dwindling supplies."

According to an article published in the National Geographic on July 14, 20161: "The United Nations predicts a global shortfall in water by 2030. About 30 percent of the planet's available freshwater is in the aquifers that underlie every continent."

The prospect of water shortage is alarming for many reasons.  Obviously – people cannot live without water.  Less obviously – authorities providing water may start waging water wars to protect what they see as their resources.

In British Columbia, legislation is not adequate to protect local governments from water wars.  We will examine why and what can be done to address the shortfall.

Precedence in the time of water shortage

In British Columbia, the province owns all surface and ground water.  To use water, a person requires a license from the province under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). 

Water licenses specify purposes, water source and date of precedence.  In instances of water shortage, license holders with junior precedence may be asked to release water so that a license holder with senior precedence has enough.   This is typically referred to as First in Time, First in Right (FITFIR).

Under the WSA, there are some exceptions to the strict application of FITFIR in times of water shortage.

Fish protection: Section 88 of the WSA enables the minister (of environment) to make an order respecting diversion and use of water, regardless of FITFIR rights, if the minister considers that "the flow of water in a specified stream is or is likely to become so low that the survival of a population of fish in the stream may be or may become threatened."

Harm to aquatic ecosystem: Section 86 and section 87 of the WSA enable the province to declare significant water shortages.  The order of significant water shortage can be issued by a minister – for up to 90 days – or by the cabinet for an indefinite period of time.  If the significant water shortage is declared, the water comptroller must determine the "critical environmental flow threshold" for the affected streams. 


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