Professor Chandra Madramootoo amidst the irrigation pipes at his water-table management and water-quality research facility.


Swimming in it:
A centre for the study of a wet world

"... to provide for and carry on research for the development of methods for reducing the salt content of sea water so that it may be used economically and effectively for irrigation; and for research into methods of irrigation or other means to make desert or arid land available and economically useful for agricultural purposes."
James Henry Brace's instructions for his bequest to McGill, 1959

BRONWYN CHESTER | Water has been called the most critical issue now facing human development. Some, like Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the World Commission on Water, an international think tank, have gone so far as to say that "the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water."

But not all in the business of understanding and managing international water resources are so pessimistic. Chandra Madramootoo, director of McGill's newly created Brace Centre for Water Resources Management, is an optimist.

He believes that water, because of its very nature -- it respects no borders and any lake or river is part of a complex watershed far vaster than its own shores -- has the potential to promote peaceful cooperation and the development of a sense of responsibility for each group's part of the water system.

Which is why the new Brace Centre, opened last June as an amalgamation of the Brace Research Institute and the Centre for Drainage Studies, has as much concern for the social, health and legal aspects of water resources as it has for the scientific and technological.

Madramootoo, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and former director of the Centre for Drainage Studies, has broadened the engineering base of the two former research units to make the BCWRM as multidisciplinary as possible.

Professor Gaetan Faubert, of the Institute of Parisitology, for instance, acts as a consultant on parasites and disease that may be carried in irrigation water. He and Madramootoo are soon off to Pakistan to study water quality in an irrigated region.

Faubert, an expert on the water-borne parasites, giardia and cryptosporidium, found here and in developing countries in association with livestock, says that conducting such a study to examine the quality of drinking water "is almost an exception" in the irrigation business.

Law professor Stephen Toope is also a member of the centre because of his expertise in the international laws governing the responsibility of water management. "He has an interest in disputes over water," says Madramootoo, "and has already worked for the Canadian International Development Agency in the field."

Stepping over to a map of the world on the wall of his office at Macdonald Campus, Madramootoo points to an inland sea in Central Asia. "There could be a war over the Aral Sea. There are five countries in its watershed," says Madramootoo, explaining that the rivers feeding the sea have been used so extensively for irrigation that the sea is virtually dry, the rivers are all polluted and the land that once produced 40 per cent of the world's cotton is salt-contaminated.

"People in the area have a 40-year lifespan," he notes.

Others in the 15-member centre include chemical engineering professor Jana Simandl, who is studying desalination, and civil engineering and applied mechanics professor Susan Gaskin, who is looking at ways of treating the pollutants contained in the runoff water from farmland on the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario.

The rest of the centre consists of professors from agricultural and biosystems engineering, natural resources sciences and plant science.

Madramootoo believes that with such a team, as well as his own long experience and many contacts in the realm of international water management, the Brace Centre is well placed to be a leader in water resource management in Canada and the world.

"In a couple of years, this will be the premier, international centre in water," says

Madramootoo, the sun shining brightly on Lake St. Louis in the background. Why is he so confident that Brace will be able to give the Dutch -- the longtime leaders in water research -- a run for their money?

"Because in Canada we've been strong in ecosystem-integrated management and in the legal aspects. We have a strong tradition in managing jurisdictional waters," says Madramootoo, explaining that while the provinces have jurisdiction over water and municipalities manage water treatment, the federal government is concerned with international waters.

"We don't fly the flag [with our particular expertise] but people ask us for advice," says Madramootoo who gained his sense of the importance of water as a boy growing up in Guyana, his "feet always wet" on a rice paddy. "There are about 240 rivers that are part of more than one country. The Nile, for instance, goes through 10 countries."

Madramootoo believes that just as we have a particular expertise in telecommunications and hydroelectricity, which we export all over the world, so we do in water management. Which is not to say that all is fine here. One of the first projects taken on by the centre after it opened last June was to host a 40-participant, nation-wide consultation with public, private, non-governmental and academic organizations on how they envision the management of freshwater in Canada in the year 2025.

Called the Canadian Vision Consultation, the report forms part of a global water vision which is to be presented at the Second World Water forum next March in The Hague which will be attended by government ministers.

One of the issues raised by Canadian participants was the degree of fragmentation in the governance of Canada's waterways and the inconsistency in enforcement of water quality standards. They also argued that while the "ecosystem approach" -- the integrated monitoring and management of a complete watershed, taking into consideration the needs of humans, flora and fauna -- has worked well with some large river basins, it has not been adopted everywhere and especially not in the smaller river basins.

That may change with the help of such research and training-oriented centres as the Brace. In fact, while mainly open to graduate students, 65 per cent of whom are international, the centre will continue to offer short courses in irrigation, drainage and soil conservation to professionals from around the world.

"The future's bright," says Madramootoo. "Yes, we have problems, but we can muster the resources we have, human as much as natural. And I have confidence in the people."