Current Problems


Why First Nations Bear the Brunt of BC’s Drought

September 25, 2023

If we’re serious about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we need water policy reform.

The view from the top of the Cleveland Dam, a tall concrete structure that divides the Capilano River below from the water reservoir out of sight. At the bottom of the concrete, two white jets of water lead to a rocky riverbed. The river is flanked by stands of tall coniferous trees.
Cleveland Dam in Capilano River Regional Park, North Vancouver. Water levels are usually higher, but extreme drought conditions in BC have persisted alongside a record-breaking wildfire season. Photo via Shutterstock.

The Tyee: The state of drought in British Columbia is at a critical point, and government officials are watering down their responsibility to act.

This points to widespread governmental policy failures in climate change, forest and mining practices, and emergency management. Front and centre of this failure are decades of water mismanagement, including regulations that absolve B.C.’s most prolific water users from paying the true cost of water extraction.

Recently, the B.C. government heeded calls to create a Watershed Security Fund, contributing $100 million. While this is a positive step forward, it is a drop in the bucket for what is needed to invest in our watersheds. The provincial government should immediately commit to a minimum of $500 million and work with the federal government to match these contributions. 

Indigenous and western science confirms that healthy watersheds protect against climate disasters, including drought. The B.C. floods in 2021, which destroyed many areas of the Lower Mainland, have been estimated to cost $17 billion in recovery efforts. Investing in our watersheds results in a two-fold economic benefit: sustainable green economy jobs will be created, and our disaster risk will be reduced. 

The federal and provincial governments must prioritize these investments now, and partner with First Nations every step of the way, including a full review and reform of water rental rates to reflect the true ecological and restorative costs of water extraction in B.C. 

Over 85 per cent of the province has entered extreme drought conditions, affecting most First Nations communities in B.C. while fires rage and further devastate our territories and watersheds. As drought worsens, the government’s response is notably absent. Meanwhile, First Nations continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of the consequences, including inadequate fire suppression and a lack of safe drinking water. 

Sounding the alarms like never before

The effects of drought are far-reaching beyond the immediate impacts on human health. Our aquatic ecosystems are at imminent risk, many of which have impacted our fish and wildlife populations due to lower stream flows and warmer temperatures. The plight of endangered salmon runs impacts all British Columbians and is central to First Nations’ inherent, constitutionally protected and treaty rights.

Entering my third term as the elected Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations which advocates for the rights, title and interests of the 204 First Nations in B.C., climate action and watershed protection have remained priority concerns for First Nations Chiefs in the province. Over the past three years, First Nations have been sounding the alarms like never before. Yet our calls for reform are met with, at best, poorly co-ordinated reactions and, at worst, outright inaction. 

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This year is no exception. Nicomen Indian Band continues to experience the effects of landslides caused by drought in 2021. Some water wells have nearly run dry in the Penticton Indian Band due to record low water quantities. Tiger dams, typically used to offset flood impacts, are being used to store water for fire protection for Kitasoo First Nation due to low water levels. These impacts will only worsen without immediate change. First Nations in B.C. are willing and able to lead the charge, but adequate resources are unavailable. 

Meanwhile, a recent report released by revealed that the fracking industry withdrew 5.2 billion litres of water from B.C.’s reservoirs in 2021. Based on the provincial government’s own Water Rent Estimator, this water withdrawal (equivalent to the size of 2,100 Olympic-sized swimming pools) is worth only $12,000 in water license revenues. This is well below the maximum extraction rates capped at $2.25 per 500,000 litres of freshwater withdrawal under B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act. As a result, B.C.’s reckless water regulations, among the lowest in Canada, leave no resources to invest back into our watersheds, which are the lifeblood of First Nations and all British Columbians. 

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Over a century of disastrous water policy

In my years as a forester, I have witnessed the impacts of poor industrial regulation, resulting in the decimation of many of our watersheds. Through water policy changes, we can reform our logging, mining and gas industries, while shifting how relationships are built between the Crown and First Nations in British Columbia. 

Both federal and provincial governments must immediately commit to substantial and continued investments in our watersheds and heed First Nations’ calls to manage and steward our sacred waters. First Nations and all British Columbians have suffered over a century of disastrous water policy. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been adopted provincially and federally. It sets out the minimum standards for upholding Indigenous rights, including water management and stewardship, and the full implementation of these standards is key to safeguarding our watersheds, our wildlife, our fish and our communities.

Without meaningful change, the federal and provincial governments will perpetuate a status quo that exacerbates the climate emergency, exhausts our water sources and threatens the health and well-being of all Canadians. Urgent action is needed to protect our future generations.

Terry Teegee 

Terry Teegee is the elected Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations.