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How competing narratives influence water policy in the Saskatchewan River Basin



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The Saskatchewan River Basin (SRB) is a critical water source for the Canadian prairies, but competing stakeholder values and priorities challenge effective policy planning. Competing stakeholder perspectives are relayed through narratives that interpret the meaning of policy problems and outcomes in unique, and often conflicting, ways. The purpose of this research is to introduce a new way of policy planning in the context of the SRB through an investigation of Saskatchewan water narratives and the impacts they have on the way policy choices and outcomes are perceived. An NVivo-assisted narrative content analysis of stakeholder documents is used to explore the narratives of four key stakeholder groups, Industry, Aboriginal, Irrigation Agriculture and Environment. Results include a collection of references corresponding to key narrative elements such as characters, frames and causal theories. Next, key elements from the Irrigation Agriculture and Aboriginal narratives are entered into a water resources model developed for Saskatchewan and used as a lens through which to explore three alternative futures in the SRB – a future with present-day conditions, a future with an irrigation expansion and a future with irrigation expansion and climate change impacts. At least four distinct water narratives are shown to exist in Saskatchewan and results suggest that stakeholder perspectives differ on values and priorities in part because each group holds a different conceptualization of the decision space, and how that space will change in the future. Discussion around desirable policy solutions becomes difficult because advocacy for one policy outcome is associated with the collection of assumptions represented by key narrative elements. Further, each narrative promotes a different perspective on how the future will unfold, exposing decision-makers to real differences in terms of which costs and benefits are highlighted or obscured. Results show there are real costs when one narrative successfully influences the policy outcome but a competing narrative comes to more accurately represent reality. Ultimately, these findings suggest that specific measures to address competing stakeholder priorities around water use are vital to design more innovative and inclusive policy when planning for a future that is forecast to be increasingly challenging for the SRB.



public policy, water, Saskatchewan, narratives



Master of Public Policy (M.P.P.)


Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy


Public Policy


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