Boil-water advisory shows how Winnipeggers are fortunate

The boil-water advisory caught us by surprise but it offered a rare chance to reflect on how we are, in fact, lucky.

When we boil our water, we have electric kettles or electric or gas stoves. Not everyone is so lucky.

The boil-water advisory in Winnipeg is a good reminder of how those who live in the city are lucky.

The boil-water advisory caught us by surprise but it offered a rare chance to reflect on how we are, in fact, lucky.

Unlike those living near Shoal Lake and many indigenous people in our country, in Winnipeg we haven’t had to go years on end boiling water. We have running water in our homes — another luxury. We don’t have to go outside in all weathers to haul water from a lake or melt snow.

When we boil our water, we have electric kettles or electric or gas stoves in our homes.  

On reserves and in rural Manitoba and in blizzard-affected New England, many are relying on their wood stoves or camp stoves for heat and cooking. 

When it was time for our kids’ evening bath, we made sure our preschoolers understood that this was not a good time to blow bubbles in the water, put a wet washcloth in a mouth (yuck!) or swallow the water by accident. I realized that we were lucky to have enough indoor running water for bathing, a claw foot tub big enough for twins, and children old enough to understand the prohibitions.

When our kids asked why they couldn’t play swimming pool and blow bubbles, we explained the boil-water advisory. This was the result of decent education: We understand the basic science behind clean and polluted water. We were able to quickly read and comprehend how to boil our water safely.

When the phone rang, it was a neighbour checking in to be sure we knew about the advisory. In turn, I called another friend who is pregnant, to be sure she too knew not to drink the water.

Later on, we read online that lots of people rushed out to buy bottled water. This might be easier for those who are seriously immune-compromised or who had infants at home.  

As we boiled more water to put into water bottles for drinking later, we recognized another chance to feel lucky: We live in a society where many can afford to buy bottled water — it’s widely available in case of emergency. It’s not overly expensive. 

If one lived on a reserve, there might be only one place to buy bottled water. If you live in a place with only fly-in or ice road access, it would be prohibitively expensive. Plus, once the store runs out, there would be no more. In Winnipeg, we can just drive or walk or take a bus to the next store.

Before bed, I called my childhood best friend, who lived in the area of the recent east coast blizzard. She is a doctor who works in Boston. I’d emailed but hadn’t heard from her. My uncle also lives in Boston and his internet and TV was down, so I tried the phone. 

Turns out my friend was happy for the snow day and time off work, as she had the flu. Although she’d been really ill, she’d quickly accessed medical care despite the storm. Her doctor prescribed Tamiflu. She was already beginning to feel better. It was easy to celebrate that with her; she’d been so lucky to get medicine and get better so quickly in the midst of an enormous snowstorm.

When we spoke, I asked more about E. coli.  

Earlier in her career, she’d worked at a rural South African hospital, where medical care and laboratory tests were often rudimentary. During our phone call, she mentioned that in North America, she was able to detect when a patient actually had E. coli.  In South Africa, she often had to suggest what a patient might have when he/she turned up with bloody stool. There were no lab tests available, and water wasn’t monitored carefully in some of the rural districts.

In Winnipeg, we have experts monitoring the water. As soon as it’s safe, we’ll hear about it in newspapers, on the radio, TV and on the internet.  If it isn’t safe, we’ll learn what we should do next, and our public health officials will give us more tips for how to stay healthy.

A boil water advisory isn’t fun — I hope this is just a fluke. Even so, we are very lucky. Most of the time, we have clean running water, electricity and gas to heat and cook in our homes, and no shortages in supplies.  

We have enough education to understand what’s going on. Some of us are blessed with families and friends who comprehend the situation, reach out to each other and cooperate in times of difficulty.  

Many have enough money to buy supplies in case of emergency, and in our city, the supplies are readily available.  

We have medical care, good scientific laboratory testing and routine safe water monitoring.  We have access to media that keeps us updated on the latest health and safety issues.

Sure, nothing is perfect — and there’s always room for improvement.  

This is probably just a moment in our lives to reflect. It could be a lot worse. As our situation gets better, we might put in a little more effort to helping others, in our province and around the world, so that nobody has to boil water for years on end in the future.  

Not everyone is so lucky.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.


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