Reflections & Future Vision

For the last challenge (Challenge #4 of the Great Waters Challenge), we are tasked with reading blogs of other folks in the challenge. Youth from across Canada have been blogging about their water stories – check out this awesome map of where they all are!

Then, we are asked to creatively show our vision for the future of water, and show how we plan on getting there.

First, though, I learned from others by reading blog posts of other participants.

Penny F from Toronto thinks there’s a disconnect between urban people and their water. Jelena, also from Toronto, is great at making maps and analyzing data – she found possible correlations between development and river level changes in the Don River, and also discussed fish species. I learned from her that the Don River is stocked with salmon for sport fishing. Stephanie was the winner of the first round of GWC Level 1, and I learned from her explorations of the Humber River that it is stocked with Pacific Salmon, since the Atlantic Salmon are no longer in this river on their own. The Pacific Salmon survival rate is very low, so this re-introduction experiment isn’t working out. Stephanie also brought together a group of people to discuss water in a spiritual and emotional sense, guiding them through activities such as associating words with water, drinking water “infused” with emotions, and discussing personal relationships to water.

Kaylyn lives in High Prairie, Alberta, and has some super awesome stories to tell about scuba diving in deep lakes in Alberta (which I never knew was possible and now really want to go and do). She did an awesome job of bringing watershed issues to her group of board game lovers. I agree that nerds of all stripes love learning new things, so that was a great environment! Alli M explored Vancouver in much the way I explored Toronto, as cities in Canada have developed in similar ways: ignoring the environment, realizing its power, trying to restore it! Courtney, Brooke & Braidy in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, asked their school mates about what they thought of the Arctic Ocean, and many responses related to hunting, fishing, the Northwest Passage as gateway between oceans, and the extreme cold!

Among the City folks, the main thread that connected them all was the influence of development on water. Development, growth in human population, industrialization, urbanization, colonialism – I find these are all words associated with disconnecting humans from their water, and putting the environment second. Among non-City folks, human influence on water resources was also evident – such as the issues around lake levels in High Prairie Alberta or sea ice loss in Nunavut.

This Challenge and these reflections bring me to what I would like to see as my vision for Canada’s water future, and how I plan on getting there. The video explains more.

Thanks Waterlution for putting on this challenge, and thank you to all the Youth Advisory Board Members and fellow challenge participants for making it happen! I am looking forward to Level 2!

Walking Garrison Creek

On a cold and bright Sunday afternoon, I gathered nine friends to go for a walk along the former Garrison Creek. I wanted to share my excitement for discovering new things in the City, and also to hear from my friends about their connections to water. The day went like this: walk and tour along Garrison Creek, end at my apartment where we warmed up, then we went through an exercise of collecting watermarks, then ate some good food!

If you haven’t heard of a “watermark” yet – you should! Lake Ontario Waterkeeper started this fabulous initiative to collect stories of our connection to water across Canada, and map them corresponding to their water body. Just browse the map to see what stories are being told about your favourite water body. I see this as an amazing tool for demonstrating how regular people care about the environment around them, and as a way to vocalize a person’s commitment to protecting their local water. You should submit your watermark today!:

Now onto the Challenge…

I am still so excited that my friends joined me for this! I had old and new friends, so not everyone knew each other, but they were all interested in different parts of the walk. When I put the invitation out, I thought maybe 3 people would come, because they see it as lame or they’re not available at that time. There was lots of availability and lots of interest – so community river walks are definitely something young people want more of! We talked about stormwater, permeable pavement, history of Toronto’s development, fish species, how the river could be “daylighted” – and just so much more. I learned from them as well, and that made the walk richer.

Here is a video I made of our day walking around Garrison Creek, and below is an outline of the walk I gave (if you want to know in detail about the history of the creek – or you can check out my previous post about it here) and the sources I used for putting together the walk.


Walk Outline

Here is the text for the walk I guided, so if you wanted to do this yourself, feel free to steal this! It is essentially a combination of the sources listed above.

Start at Christie Station. The Christie Reach of the Creek is from Davenport Road to Harbord Street. From the front of Christie Station you can look into Christie Pits Park, where the creek was once at the surface. The Garrison Creek sewer dates originally to 1885. This is a combined sewer. The creek was getting very dirty and so it was put underground to keep the rest of the City looking cleaner. An interceptor sewer was installed in 1910-1912 that would carry excess flow from Bloor-Trinity-Bellwoods area during storm events to an outlet to Lake Ontario at Bathurst Quay. This is an overflow sewer, and only sees flows during large rain events. The creek was fully buried in 1915 and runs under the park in sewers now.

Walk down Grace Street to Bickford Park. Walk around the west side of Bickford Park. The slopes of Bickford Park give away that this was once a valley. At the southern end of Bickford Park at Harbord Road, this used to be the old bridge that spanned the creek. The City buried the creek and the bridge in 1930. The sewer in this area had to be narrow, so they chose an arch design.

Walk down Montrose Avenue until it joins Crawford Street and then follow Crawford Street.

Cinder Lane, just south of College Street behind the Metro – in the 19th and 20th century, cinders and ash were picked up along laneways and dumped into ravines. The poor would scavenge among the cinder and ash remains to find any usable coal for their own heating needs. Now laneways aren’t used in the same way, they are often just paved places that contribute stormwater runoff to our combined sewer system. What if we converted all of these driveways and laneways to permeable pavement? All that stormwater could be soaked up instead.

Follow Cinder Lane into Fred Hamilton Park. In the Park, Garrison Creek is in a sewer right under the diagonal pathway on our right. Walk to the top of the laneway behind the first row of houses at the park’s edge. WaterHarvest is a project to collect water from a new park building, and store it in a cistern for use in the community garden. Notice the cluster of pots with butterfly friendly pots and a saucer of damp sand – a puddling site for butterflies.

Continue west across Fred Hamilton Park, down the former Garrison Ravine bank, and head south on Roxton Road to Harrison Street. Notice the community pollinator garden and fruit trees at the south end of the park.

At the corner of Roxton and Harrison Roads, we are very close to the confluence of Garrison with Denison Creek, we can hear and smell the rushing water under the sewer grate. You are on top of the Garrison Creek trunk sanitary sewer; it runs day and night regardless of rainfall, because it carries not only rain, but sewage from the surrounding houses. The green sewer vents at the corner release methane gas from the sewer below.

Walk down Roxton Road until you reach a parkette, and enter the parkette, walking east. Notice the slopes, and a large willow that likely has its roots in one of the two sewers under this parkette.

In the laneway behind this park, deep below the alley is a combined storm overflow sewer that was built because the original sewer on Garrison Creek was overloaded. Until the 1990’s it regularly overflowed into the lake but now it is diverted into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel where contaminants settle to the bottom and water that flows into the lake is treated with UV light. The City’s Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan, a billion dollar strategy to manage combined sewer overflows, uses a combination of source controls, conveyance controls and end of pipe holding tanks to prevent spills into the lake.

Continue south to Dundas, turn east to Shaw Street, and cross south at the lights. Head south on Crawford Street, to the information plaque about the Crawford Street Bridge, and images of the lost fish of Garrison Creek inlaid along the street.

Just north of here, at Dundas and Crawford, the Garrison Creek sewer meets the Mid Toronto interceptor sewer on its way to Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant is the largest surface water polluter in North America (13,679,710 kg of pollutants in 2006).

There have been many plans to daylight this creek, including one in 1994 by Brown and Storey. They imagined a permanent pond in the bowl, which is now primarily a dog park, and sloped areas that would collect rainwater from the local area.

Walk to the community centre at the southwest part of the park.

Before urbanization this area had many springs and wetlands and was described as “a perfect paradise for sportsmen” who hunted black duck, mallard, pintail, teal, wood duck, geese, plovers, sandpipers, woodcock, and passenger pigeons. This early version of a rain garden receives water from the community centre. It’s not very exciting to look at and doesn’t compare with what once was here, but since it keeps rainwater out of the storm sewers and has some biomass, it has ecosystem functions.

Walk along the diagonal park path and stop at Gore Vale Avenue, to see the plaques for Garrison Creek.


This reach is named after Trinity College, which was a private college. It joined with the University of Toronto and moved closer to the rest of campus (which is what we know as Trinity College now), and for some reason they took down the old beautiful building, and only the gates remain.

The main course of Garrison Creek flows southeast under the tennis courts at this point. A map of the creek is inlaid in a plaque on the sidewalk on the corner of Queen Street and Gore Vale Avenue.

Cross Queen Street and follow Walnut Avenue South until it ends, then take Wellington to Niagara, to Bathurst. Walk south down Bathurst until Fort York Blvd. This was the former outlet to Garrison Creek.

This was a very industrialized part of the City. Breweries and slaughterhouses were set up to take advantage of the clean creek water at their front doors. With creek burial and land reclamation, remnants of the creek and its tributaries at this reach are very difficult to find. Sewers at this point deliver combined sewage (storm and sanitary) to the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant (in the eastern part of Toronto), but during heavy rain events, these combined sewers overflow directly into Lake Ontario.

Community engagement ?

I’ve written several posts about community visits taken on our WIL-India trip – now I’m going to look more critically at these and offer some reflections. Thankfully we also had the opportunity to discuss our thoughts with the group also, so this is informed as well by my learning from other participants. 

It was awkward going into communities that need development solutions and not offering anything. It was also awkward to think critically about that village when it’s a place that people genuinely live their lives, despite challenges. Without having deep connections or understanding of context, there is nothing I can offer besides a kind face and a listening ear. I really was a tourist on these visits. 

The other awkward part was that the trips were meant to be experiential learning. I was experiencing something, true, but it was more voyeuristic than hands on. I didn’t live with them, cook with them, work in the fields with them. 

This learning was supposed to lead to understanding of problems in order to propose solutions to complex problems. So it was going back to my time in international development (I was in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders in 2008 – for more on that see the equally originally named blog How do I really know anything as an outsider (I don’t)? And is it even useful at all to take foreigners around to tour village life, just for the sake of their personal learning? Could I learn this in another way? Could I have the same understanding and compassion if I read a really good article about it? 

What I learned from the facilitators of WIL-India is that practicing your intention can make an impact on communities visited. The first step is to “look with an appreciative gaze”. Seeing abundance and beauty , instead of problems and solutions, allows for a faster and more open relationship to develop. People are happy to share their lives and what they are proud of. 

The appreciative gaze practice can be criticized for its lack of critcism. Isn’t this just glossing over and ignoring problems? The reason it’s a first step for newcomers is that we have been there too short a time to understand the social and cultural dynamics at play. And for us who are on tours, we are also not there long enough to do anything about the problem. If you can’t spend time to understand and work on the issue, you shouldn’t bring it up, because really that’s just rude! 

So the appreciative gaze is a perfect first step for brief visits, and means that a short tour can be a learning journey for me and a chance to teach and brag for a community. 

Doing anything deeper though requires strong facilitation. Our trip facilitators are also involved in warriors without weapons – a non profit that uses facilitation processes to determine and realize the collective dreams of a community. 

All in all, I learned new things about how development could be done, and practiced techniques for community engagement on a small scale. It felt beautiful. 

My community visits were summarized in yhes blog posts :

Lessons from a Fishing Village

Making salt in the desert
Tribal village visits in Rajasthan

Tribal village visits in Rajasthan

The last of our community visits were to tribal villages around Udaipur. These were facilitated by the NGO Wells for India. The main theme of Wells for India is about getting communities mobilized to solve and fund their own projects. 

In the first village we visited, we met with farmers who had decided efficient and judicious ways of irrigation from groundwater. Two large reservoirs were built, and one groundwater pump is used to fill that reservoir. 12 families divide that water, and irrigation is distributed on a rotating schedule. Excess water in the tank is infiltrated back into the ground to recharge the groundwater. A number of traditional water management techniques are used as well, such as stone walls to terrace sloped fields, which help reduce runoff from the fields. 

This community also invested in scientific information. They fundraised amongst themselves and received donor funds to build a weather station. Indra, a 19 year old girl, explained to us how the weather station works, where she keeps her measurements, and how her information is used to help farmers determine when to take action, such as protecting against frost or when to sow seeds. She was a confident speaker and was so clearly proud of her contribution to her community. It’s beautiful to see people empowered like her.

The second village we visited was even more remote, causing us to finally abandon our bus and walk a kilometer (though they were kind enough to also send some men on bikes to fetch us for that short leg!). Aleppan village (spelling not verified) is very mountainous and has several monsoon streams. They pooled money to build a small dam on the stream in order to be able to retain more water after the monsoon season to use for irrigation. The birds were clearly happy with this situation – we saw many beautiful egrets, cranes and possibly a flamingo. 

I have been amazed on this trip to see how welcoming villagers are when we visit. I think it’s a mix of curiosity about outsiders with a genuine pride in their work. What more could someone hope for, really, than to be proud of what they’re doing in life? 

More water tours

A friend of Swaraj’s developed a water tour of Udaipur City. He generally runs tours, but adapted this one to focus on water. Really I’m starting to think I should request water tours everywhere I go, it’s just so fascinating!

Udaipur is known as the city of lakes. Before the city was developed, which was done because it was a good defensive area, the lakes were created by building dams. So those dams have been in place for ~500 years! 

Udaipur has a good groundwater resources and pumps are located throughout the city for citizens’ use. These were implemented long before water was piped into homes. Water tanks for animals to drink from were placed next to wells, and citizens would fill up these tanks as they went to fill up their own water, which helped with maintaining the wandering city animals. 

Many housing compounds in the city were built for extended families, so several homes would overlook a courtyard, and the courtyard would have its own wells and water tanks. 

There are two sewer systems : wastewater and combined grey water and storm water. Such a water smart way of dividing wastewaters ! 

Our other water touristy adventures :

We visited the UNESCO world heritage step well – Rani Ki Vav. This is a huge underground structure which was used to obtain ground water. A queen commissioned it and she is said to have bathed there secretly. The structural ingenuity and artistry that went into it was just stunning. A temple in the ground, all for worshipping water. 

And we went to Mt Abu, a former British hill station and now a popular Indian family summer vacation. Nakki lake at the top of Mt Abu is just stunning. I climbed a hill on top of the lake and meditated near some bamboos also enjoying the sun and view. 

Making salt in the desert

Last week we visited the community of Adesar in Gujarat to see how salt pan workers live. The local word for making salt is “bhor”. In this area, it involves extracting briney groundwater (which is the norm there) and letting the water evaporate out in large “pools” that were built by creating earth walls. Water is pumped from the ground and rotated around several of these pans. The final salt product is raked, excavated, piled and sold in large quantities. 

You can imagine that this is a very hot and sunny job. Workers have built day time shelters for rest. They retire to villages nearby, away from the desert. From these villages they also engage in agriculture when it is no longer the dry salt making season. 

Drinking water for these villagers cannot come from groundwater. We saw one village where they had built a lake to retain monsoon rainfall. They also could receive tap water trucked to them from the government. 

We visited a community that worked as a collective to keep their land. There is a challenge in this area, a fight with government over land. Many small salt pan workers have seen their land snatched up. These salt pan workers , with the aid of NGOs , have managed to keep their heritage and livelihoods by banding together and opposing government claims to their land. 

Unlearning and Appreciation 

We spent the last 4 days of WIL-India at Swaraj University, the global centre for unlearning. This is a rural centre, where “students” live communally in dorms and keep up the maintenance of the centre. The land is farmed and there is livestock. It’s a beautiful and peaceful area, perfect for deep exploration and learning. 

What is unlearning ? I’m not sure that I’m the best person to explain it, despite my time at the centres. It’s such a big topic. I think it’s faith that the answers are within us and not within institutions. Manisg, who founded Swaraj, describes going to Harvard and noting that his village grandmother knew more about sustainability than his Harvard professors. There are many theories that are touted, but take those professors out for a drink or two, and they will admit they know nothing! 

Unlearning is also about removing our connections to objects. It’s not about seeing scarcity – which leads to greed – but seeing abundance – which leads to sharing and gift giving. I don’t know what else unlearning is – my brief glimpse just inspired me to learn more, and to start by removing my attachment to things. 

This is practised by living simply – which was a challenge to participants as many of us were quite used to comforts. A solar hot water heater provided warm bucket bath (no shower) water to some folks on chilly mornings, toilet paper could only go in the composting toilet, not the flush toilet, beds consisted of wooden platforms with a thin mat on top. Everything was outside and evenings were quite cool. Rules included: absolutely no garbage allowed, carry out any garbage you produce, clean your own dishes, no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking. 

A sister site, without sleeping facilities, exists in the city of Udaipur, Shikshantar. Udaipur, in addition to its title as “city of lakes” is also a city of social justice activists. Anyone can partake in activities at Shikshantar. It has a community library and kitchen and beautiful spaces for meetings.
We deepened our group work and facilitation practices at Swaraj. We did a round of open space, we worked in teams on projects, and we presented our projects to our friends at WIL-India. We conducted one community visit and used the circle spaces to go into deep discussions on how to do community engagement and what made us uncomfortable about our visits. Our group really bonded here. 

One beautiful exercise that Manish facilitated for us was called “appreciation shower”. A portion of participants sit on chairs in a circle, blind folded. The rest of the participants wander around and whisper praise and compliments in their ears. There were a few rules which really made this work : hands must always be on the blind folded person’s shoulders, only nice things about them (not you!) can be said, and it must be whispered. This did a fantastic job of removing all of my insecurities about receiving compliments – mainly by comparing myself to others who may be receiving more or less praise. I didn’t know what was happening to anyone else, I only knew about me and all the nice things being said to me. I cried. And I loved sharing beautiful things in other people’s ears too. Rarely do we give ourselves enough opportunities to appreciate others, but when forced to think about it, all you come out with is love and gratitude. Showering appreciation makes everyone feel better. I love this practice and need to bring it elsewhere. 

Bhuj and deepening our group

Yesterday we arrived in Bhuj after quite the ordeal at the Mumbai airport. That place is mayhem, then add to that that we are a group of more than 40 people – and eek! All worked out and we arrived at our hotel and had more mayhem as each of us had to hand fill in 4 things and have our passports scanned. So 4am-11:30am was just lineups for all of us. We managed and it maybe made us all a bit stronger. 

We have used our down time well, and we visited a craft market, Prag MahalAina Mahal and climbed Bhujia Hill. Bhujia hill was a beautiful little hike and at the top we could see a park containing many water wells, and apparently this was built to commemorate victims of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. 

Our group processes are kicking off. We are doing open space. We had a session where participants pitched their projects followed by a “marketplace” where we could all ask questions or offer resources. We shared our talents and skills. A few resource guests ran sessions on the topics of: creative thinking to explore problems, leadership and collaboration, and entrepreneurship. 

I am always happy to learn new facilitation technologies and jot down these many ways of bringing groups together. I am deepening my learning of facilitation at the same time as participating in these activities. 

My main take aways so far are:

  • Successful collaboration needs lots of small wins 
  • Getting collaborators means coming from a place of shared understanding first 
  • You don’t have to do it all at once, break down what skills you need and develop one at a time 

From the pitches within our group we have seen:

  • Collaboration is needed, and it’s a complex thing to achieve 
  • Many of us are looking for business modelling help 
  • Community engagement and empowerment are at the root of many projects 
  • Solutions we have are whole systems solutions 

    And I will end with some photos!

    Lessons from a fishing village 

    We visited a fishing village that is located on the sea side of the Bhandra neighbourhood , which is a posh neighbourhood with coffee shops, a dog park, a jogging lane, and lovely promenades along the sea. Where Bhandra didn’t look beautiful was on the sea side – you could see piles of garbage, sewage coming through pipes into mangroves, and this fishing village where dogs and pigs scavenged through the garbage.

    We divided up into small groups and had conversations with inidivuals and asked them their thoughts on where they live. Many expressed a deep love of where they live , mainly due to the beauty of being by the sea. People were more than fishermen, other jobs included teacher, sandwich-seller, fence-maker. One 12-year-old girl showed us her home and told us about her family and school and that she wants to be a doctor some day. Very little was said by them about waste or sanitation. There have been efforts in the past to clean up the beach but that hasn’t lasted, and they open defecate outside among the litter. They have built community spaces for themselves, like a shelter for hanging out in during the rains and a cover over their water source. 

    It felt a bit at first as if we were being voyeuristic and judgmental. But asking questions and listening and sharing in small groups broke down barriers between us and them. The musicians in our group asked if they could learn a fishing song, and in turn sang a fishing song from Canada. We then gathered and danced to their music and laughed at each other. 

    As the sun was setting we left, said goodbye, and continued talking about how amazing that experience was.