By Alister Doyle
OSLO (Reuters) - Canada's Mackenzie River basin needs better protection as a vast northern "refrigerator" slowing global climate change, experts said on Monday.
Canada's longest river also needs a unifying plan to oversee water quality, wildlife and oil pollution that would be similar to European Union directives governing rivers such as the Rhine or Danube, they said.
There is now a patchwork of government and local rules for the 1,800-km-long (1,100-mile) river that flows into the Arctic Ocean through a basin of forests and tundra covering 20 percent of Canada.
"The watershed is important not just for North America but for the globe," said Thomas Axworthy, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Gordon Foundation which is helping fund talks in Vancouver from September 5-7 about new ways to protect the river.
"Unlike many of our waters and streams it has not yet been ruined," Axworthy told Reuters, adding there were big risks unless oversight was improved. The foundation promotes freshwater resources in Canada.
"The refrigerator-like cooling effect of ice and annual snow cover in the northern Mackenzie basin plays a vital role in weather and climate patterns in Canada and throughout the northern hemisphere," conference organizers said in a statement.
GRIZZLY POLAR BEARS
There are already signs of a changing climate - such as a melting of ice roads, more insect pests in forests and even cases of grizzly and polar bears interbreeding. Better understanding of the risks was needed to plan for the future.
The September 5-7 meeting of experts would review Canadian government steps to monitor and curb pollution from oil sands, mainly in Alberta, that one study found were "significant contributors" to contaminating waters in the Mackenzie basin.
Local oil and industry were adding to the worldwide build-up of greenhouse gases blamed for stoking global warming. China, the United States and the European Union are top emitters.
"Development activity in British Columbia and Alberta is intensifying adverse impacts of climate change," Canadian water scientist James Bruce said.
The conference, known as the Rosenberg Forum on water policy, will have an advisory role for Canada's government, provinces and territories that have recognized a need for a transboundary agreement to govern resources.
"The Mackenzie system is our 'cold Amazon'. It is as central to the northern region of this continent as the Amazon is to South America," said Alberta-based water policy analyst Bob Sandford.
Canada's government, provinces and territories "are seeking to set objectives for surface and groundwater quality and quantity, emergency notification requirements, information exchange protocols and dispute resolution processes," the statement said.
By one estimate, the watershed provides free services such as water filtration or storage of heat-trapping carbon worth $571 billion per year, it said.
Most of the total, or $339 billion, was "attributed to the storage and annual absorption of carbon by the basin's forests, peatlands, wetlands and tundra," it said. Plants soak up carbon dioxide when they grow and release it when they rot or burn.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)