Public Life Hero: Margaret Catley-Carlson

We asked you to tell us whom you consider a hero in education, community service, rescue, public life and health. From the nominations received, judges selected a finalist in each category. Here is our Public Life hero.

Margaret Catley-Carlson admits she hasn’t had a bath in years. Quick showers, yes, but filling a bathtub? “I just couldn’t do it.” It’s a tiny gesture towards global water conservation, but the former diplomat turned international water management crusader believes every drop counts.

Catley-Carlson’s passion for protecting water supplies around the world is a culmination of 40 years of working for global good. She started her career as a diplomat with External Affairs, was a senior executive at UNICEF, president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) at Pierre Trudeau’s request (“My favourite job, bar none”), and now sits on the boards of dozens of science and policy agencies, including the UN Secretary General Task Force on Water.

“I’ve had a front-row seat on development struggles around the world and have come to realize that we haven’t paid enough attention to the planetary costs of poor development-in denuded landscapes, global health issues, overpopulation, underused human capital,” she says.

With her experience and knowledge of population growth, agriculture and women’s rights, Catley- Carlson brings a unique mix of skills to the cause she now works on, primarily as a volunteer. “I can link things together,” she says. So as she travels the world from conference to conference, she helps connect the dots for scientists and policy-makers who know their own area very well.

The day we meet in Ottawa, Catley-Carlson has an appointment with former deputy prime minister Herb Gray, who chairs the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission, which advises the Canadian and U.S. governments on water issues. After bussing Gray on both cheeks, Catley-Carlson settles herself on the sofa in his office, Tim Hortons coffee in hand, and fills him in on the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, held in Spain, where she gave the keynote address entitled “The Realities of Water in Agriculture.”

The drought in Spain is serious, she tells Gray-“They’re trucking water into Barce­lona”-and few people are discussing the problem. Gray appreciates the information. “It’s a great honour to work with Margaret,” he says, “because of her knowledge of the issues.”

Catley-Carlson’s goal is to help forge a “loose global consensus on water management” before it is too late. Water shortage (droughts), oversupply (floods) and disappearance (overuse) are major manifestations of how we need to improve the world we live in. That’s what drives her to spend more than half of her time flying around the world, chairing committees, giving speeches, talking to scientists. She smiles as she talks animatedly about some of the achievements she’s seen: recycled gray water (relatively clean waste water from sources other than toilets) used for agriculture, intercountry discussions on managing shared resources.

Is she hopeful for the future? Her smile stays fixed, but her eyes go flat. She slowly shakes her head no. In a voice tight with emotion, she asks: “Are emissions going down? No. Are water levels going up? No. Is population going down? No.” Those numbers would have to turn around for her to feel hopeful, she says. “We’re over-consuming and drawing down on our resources.”

So what keeps her going? “You have a duty to be optimistic. You must act as if you believe.” And as her duty to optimism kicks in, she talks about the importance of creating new technologies to husband our water resources.

The core issue is human nature and how much people can change. From her vantage point, Catley-Carlson knows better than most that the myth that water is an unlimited resource must be replaced with a new mindset: We need to manage this precious re-source for a sustainable world. And she’s doing everything she can to make that happen.

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