Difficult to imagine that fifteen years have passed since I worked as a ‘rapporteur’ for the Part 2 Inquiry in to Walkerton’s water contamination. Tying that experience to my current research, I sat down to reflect on what can be learned from that event. A longer ‘research version’ — co authored with Stephanie Cote and Hanna Ross — will be published in Alternatives “Out of the Box” issue in July 2015.
Canadians don’t die from drinking tap water. And we certainly don’t die from drinking town water in southwestern Ontario. Fifteen years ago that perception was shattered. When Walkerton’s drinking water was contaminated and ignored, it set off a chain reaction of illness, death and recriminations that reached all the way across the province to Queen’s Park and the national media headquarters.
While deeply tragic for Walkerton’s residents, the water contamination event permanently altered provincial water management. The ensuing public inquiry led by Justice O’Connor triggered long overdue reforms in the provincial regulation of local water supplies. Those reforms, at the level of both farm and town, included new source water protection procedures, training, water quality standards and monitoring requirements. These changes generated greater funding for research, more public participation in decision making and a reconnection of ‘water’ to issues of public health, agricultural production and water data availability.
Beyond the policy and politics, Walkerton’s water contamination can teach us even more. It can help us better understand how our brains, emotions and behaviour are linked. And our response to Walkerton illustrates the influence of fear on our environmental decision-making.
Linking emotions and decisions isn’t new. But early theories of human thought argued that we should control our emotions so that ‘rational thought’ wouldn’t be tainted. Rational decisions are unbiased, and therefore correct.
But that perspective is changing as cognitive science shows how emotions can be a powerful influence on our everyday decisions. We can’t always control our emotions. Our brains organise the world around us through neuro-chemical systems. This signaling guides our decisions about everything from what to eat, fear, value and believe. And negative emotions – particularly fear, anxiety and foreboding associated with death – are much more powerful than we’ve previously appreciated.
During and after Walkerton’s water contamination, a wide range of negative emotions erupted in the media. Disgust, fear, sadness and anxiety dominated as we grappled with a sense of vulnerability to illness and death linked to drinking dirty tap water. Given what is known about brains and emotions, we suspect that the medias’ expressions of fear – linked to human mortality – would have deep implications on public consciousness.
Walkerton’s water contamination – and the community’s subsequent reliance on bottled or boiled water – directly contradicted our shared Canadian identity as inhabitants of a place with pristine and abundant water. Suddenly, we had visible evidence that our water wasn’t always clean or easily available. Household taps were a source of danger and images of plastic water bottles being unloaded in Walkerton flashed across the news.
Walkerton’s water contamination also brought human misfortune close to home. This story about dirty water, disease and death was not from a distant, underdeveloped nation. It wasn’t even from the Canadian north with its history of harsh conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Instead, this was a story from a community not far from major population centres – within a three-hour drive from downtown Toronto – where unsuspecting people died after drinking their municipal water. These people could have been our neighbours.
Finally, Walkerton seeped into our consciousness because the media reported relentlessly on the water-related illness and deaths – “seven people died and over 2 000 became ill”. That phrase was used so often in the media coverage that we might wonder if there was a keyboard shortcut for the phrase. This media coverage – providing constant mortality reminders – allowed us to imagine ourselves in a reality where previously trusted tap water becomes a source of danger, illness and death.
Combined, the challenges to our identity, the proximity of the tragedy, and the repeated mortality reminders triggered our imaginations, our emotions and influenced our reactions to Walkerton. For those of us who work on water research and policy, Walkerton is a historic marker for when water issues gained traction with the government and public. Walkerton is also a stark reminder of the enormous risks of getting it wrong or missing the signals. For citizens, Walkerton’s water contamination became an unfortunate lesson that ‘safe’ doesn’t always mean ‘infallible’. Canadians’ increasing bottled water purchases – 36.4 litres per capita in 2000 jumped to 69.3 liters by 2010 – confirms this new perception.
Reminders of our mortality fears are everywhere: in our news, entertainment and even when we look in the mirror. Recognizing emotions’ influence on our water decisions could improve water policy development, strengthen municipal efficiency programs and help us better prepare for, and respond to, future floods, droughts and contamination.