My Watermark is Lake Ontario.
Growing up near Lake Ontario, I always took great pleasure from summers spent in cottage country. I can remember many a day spent lounging lazily aside the St. Lawrence River with a book, or splashing around playfully in the water with my siblings. Water played a fundamental, yet understated, role in my upbringing. It didn’t come to the foreground of my life in a personal way until July of 2012.
I had been majoring in Global and Environmental Studies at university, and my knowledge and passion about international resource management challenges was growing. That summer, I made the decision to volunteer on a ceramic water filters project in Peru. Waterborne disease is one of the biggest health concerns in the Sacred Valley region, and in the absence of centralized water treatment systems, families are left to fend for themselves. As a volunteer, my job was to help make ceramic filters for household use in the workshop (pictured above) and deliver them to families so that they can take charge of their own water safety. I was thrilled to put my knowledge to use in such a tangible fashion; little did I know at the time that I would suffer first-hand from the very problem I was trying to address.
I woke up one morning during my volunteer stint feeling very ill. My head was pounding, and I couldn’t bring myself to down my regular Peruvian breakfast of huevos con palta y pan. I told my partner to go to the ceramic filters workshop without me and retreated back to bed, hoping a good rest would right my symptoms. I was wrong. As the day wore on, I tossed and turned fitfully in my bed. I developed an extreme chill and no number of layers or blankets could warm me. I became progressively weaker with each trip to the washroom. By the time my partner returned to check on me late that afternoon, I was so frail I could barely lift my head to ask for help. He called for a doctor immediately.
A round of tests and samples confirmed my fear: I had contracted Salmonella poisoning. Salmonella is usually caused by eating raw or undercooked meat, but it can also be contracted by drinking contaminated water. Here in Canada, Salmonella poisoning can be considered fairly serious, but my doctor in Peru seemed unfazed by the diagnosis because he treats so many people with the condition on a regular basis. I was hooked up to an IV and prescribed a round of antibiotics, which I took gratefully. I immediately started to feel better and returned to wrap up my volunteer post, eventually heading back to Canada at the end of the summer. I didn’t know that my health problems were only beginning.
The antibiotics I had taken in Peru were extremely powerful; so powerful that I unknowingly wiped out my gut bacterial defenses. You see, we all have ‘good’ gastrointestinal bacteria that works to protect us from infections. Unfortunately, the drugs I took to treat the Salmonella also killed this ‘good’ bacteria. Over the coming months, my immune system slowly began to break down.
It started with small things at first; I developed a cough that I just couldn’t beat, or I woke up in the morning with a runny nose. Then I noticed my energy levels took a dive while my stress level were elevated. A year or so after taking the initial treatment for Salmonella, I began to suffer from full-blown sickness every month; it seemed I was always getting sick, catching every cold in sight. A breaking point finally came during flu season in the fall of 2014, when I contracted the virus and limped along for four weeks, while I observed my roommate kick it within the span of a week! I knew something was wrong.
With help from a range of health professionals, I discovered that I had an overgrowth of ‘bad’ gastrointestinal bacteria that was wreaking havoc on my immune system and subsequently lowering my overall quality of life. The solution? A strict diet (including tons of water), months of probiotics and costly supplements, and interval check-ups to track my progress. The result? Life-altering. While I can say today that I am officially recovered from the Salmonella poisoning and its after-effects, I developed several lingering food sensitivities along the way that continue to impact me on a daily basis.
Along my path to recover my health, I have been given lots of time to reflect on what water means to me. Water has life-giving— and life-taking— power. It was contaminated water that landed me in a multi-year battle to regain my full immunity— and it was clean drinking water that helped restore me. And while my journey has been difficult, I am reminded that it is a reality for so many in the world— some of whom live in our own backyards.
Although my own water story took place abroad, people in Canada are not immune to similar issues. Water quality problems impact drinking water in First Nations across Canada, with Drinking Water Advisories in effect in nearly 100 different communities. In our very own Vancouver, dismal water quality in False Creek made national headlines last summer, with E.coli counts through the roof. Despite our pride in Canada’s heritage of abundant natural beauty, access to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water is a problem we all face.
I am encouraged to be working with Fraser Riverkeeper today because I believe that Canadians have an inalienable right to clean water, and Fraser Riverkeeper is working to help us reclaim that right. My volunteer stint in Peru and the experiences that followed made my relationship to water come alive. I now see water as a vital resource we all need to appreciate in order to protect, and my goal is to share my story with others to inspire them to do the same.