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Water semantics

What’s the difference between water for irrigation and water for food production? This question was raised, albeit obliquely, at the May 31-June 1 Water, Agriculture and the Environment conference in Lethbridge.
Howard Wheater, who holds the research chair in water security at the University of Saskatchewan, had just finished talking about world water scarcity and the fact that 70 to 80 percent of the world’s water use goes to irrigation. And 86 percent of the South Saskatchewan River flow goes to irrigation.
In the future, the Prairies are essentially guaranteed to face additional water allocation issues.

Water coming down the spillway of the Oldman River Dam is on its way to irrigate southern Alberta crops — and grow food.

Water coming down the spillway of the Oldman River Dam is on its way to irrigate southern Alberta crops — and grow food.

Alert to coming controversy, one audience member suggested future discussion should surround water for food production, rather than water for irrigation.
In a way, the two are one and the same, but one of them definitely sounds better to the general public’s ears when making a point about essential water use.
Water for irrigation could be read as water that helps farmers make money. Water for food production is a motherhood statement.
It can’t be argued that farmers should make money. In southern Alberta, irrigation helps them do it. And if they make money, they will keep producing food. It’s a pretty straight line.
That’s oversimplified, however. Irrigation is not all used for farming. Some of it services municipalities, providing drinking water and water for household use. Some of it serves industry. The food industry, yes, but other industries also. Some of it is important for recreation and environmental protection.
For his part, Wheater said he attaches no negative connotation whatsoever to the word “irrigation.” He acknowledged that the words used to describe water needs — or anything else, for that matter — are important.
And if people do think twice about the idea of allocating water for irrigation, “it points to the challenge of societal understanding of these issues.”
In another presentation at the conference, Alberta deputy agriculture minister John Knapp talked about the need for a “social licence” that will guide government in establishing water policy.
Essentially, that means society has to be clear in its desires regarding water use so the government can establish policy that will be supported.
Would a social licence that supports water allocation for irrigation be more easily achieved if it were referred to as water for food production? The words used to support farmers’ arguments will be important.

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