The contamination of the public water supply in Walkerton, Ontario in May 2000 left seven dead and countless ill. Amid the complex tangle of questions about what caused this tragedy lie some central concerns.
As the public inquiry continues to pursue answers to these questions, its piecing together a picture of downloading, deregulation, inadequate training and privatization. These factors combined with others to break a vital link in the chain of communication and accountability that is supposed to protect public water and public health in this country.
Ensuring clean, safe drinking water becomes more difficult as environmental inspection and enforcement staff have been slashed, and towns and cities assume added responsibilities without matching financial support and technical backup.
With proper public support, Walkertons water might still have had problems though problems may have been spotted earlier and remedied faster. Without adequate public support, it became a question of when, not if, disaster would strike.
Walkerton also highlights just how frayed some of Canadas water systems are. Across the country, drinking water and wastewater systems are in desperate need of upgrading and repair. Poorly funded and under-resourced public systems are in danger of failing other communities. The network of services and systems that failed Walkerton needs to be repaired not just patched up, but in some cases, rebuilt.
Mounting evidence of this need has spurred some to call for increased privatization as the only solution to crumbling infrastructure and lax regulation.
Both the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships and the Harris government have moved swiftly in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy to push for even more privatization of Ontarios water.
Yet given the role of private labs in the frayed system of checks and balances that failed the residents of Walkerton, to advocate further privatization is rash and irresponsible.
The effects of provincial policies such as deregulation and financial cuts must also come under scrutiny. Those policies create a self-fulfilling prophecy by undermining public systems. Having starved the systems of cash and regulatory oversight, pro-privatization advocates now argue there is no alternative but to turn to the private sector.
Equally important, the commission has yet to make its recommendations on improvements for staff training at waterworks, an obvious part of a public solution.
While those who seek to make profit from one part of water delivery and ignore the whole system forge ahead, many others believe it is important to allow the inquiry to hear the evidence and make recommendations before drawing conclusions and rushing to decisions.