Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography & Environmental Studies

Program Name/Specialization

Environmental Resource Management


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Dr. Robert McLeman

Advisor Role

Dissertation Advisor



Water is the great connector. Water connects people, health, wellness, culture, spirituality, nature, and the economy. Clean, safe water (potable water) and sanitation were recognized over a decade ago by the United Nations General Assembly (UN) as a basic human right, and more recently the UN has also identified water sustainability and management as one of 17 sustainable development goals for all people in all countries. Water is inextricably connected to humans. Yet, in Ontario, Canada, a place with access to some of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, robust regulatory frameworks, involvement, some investment by all levels of government, and a wealth of technical expertise, there are still thousands of people who experience disruption and contamination to this essential, life-sustaining resource, sometimes for decades. This situation, which affects First Nations disproportionately, has created a sustainability challenge in Ontario and gives rise to Ontario’s water paradox.

Previous research has identified several troubling social trends regarding water which could help to explain this apparent water paradox in Ontario, including chronic underfunding of water-related infrastructure, overconsumption, a complex regulatory regime, and a general indifference about water. Given that these factors are a result of human choices and priorities, it appears that water is inextricably connected to people, but people may not perceive a deep connection to water. Since human connection to nature, including water, is a known predictive factor of social action toward sustainability, addressing the current challenges related to potable water requires that people are connected to water. The purpose of this research is therefore to understand how Ontarians were connected to water prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following objectives guided this exploration.

1) Examine water stories from/of a diverse sample of Ontarians to identify the ways people were connected to water, specifically situating drinking water within those connections.

2) Investigate whether stories and storytelling have any impact on the way people are connected to water.

3) Utilize the findings related to water connections to develop and refine a water connectedness continuum which helps to explain how human-water connectedness could be changed over time.

4) Create strategic recommendations that reflect a future-looking Ontario water story in support of individual and social learning about drinking water in Ontario to advance water resource sustainability.

This is a mixed methods research project, utilizing a convergent design to harness multiple ways of experiencing the subject matter and to gain breadth and depth of understanding. The research is based in a dialectical perspective, bringing together pragmatism and transformative worldviews. Pragmatism is a worldview focused on the primary importance of the research question while the transformative worldview is based in social justice and human rights. Together, these worldviews are a novel lens through which to identify insights related to human connections to water and water sustainability in Ontario.

Three datasets were utilized in this mixed methods project, namely content analysis of a rich database of personal water stories (N=346) of Ontarians available digitally through the Watermark Project, a digital survey which utilized a snowball sampling method and reached a diverse group of Ontarians (N=136), and a virtual roundtable discussion made up of people who self-identified through the survey as having a heightened interest in the topic (N=5). Both primary and secondary data sources, and shallow and deep participation were utilized.

The findings reveal that all Ontarians are connected to water in some way. Nineteen different ways of being connected to water were identified. Exploring slightly different questions about water connection (i.e., connection mediated through a waterbody, or to water as a general concept), yielded both similar and different responses. Most striking was the connection to water through recreation, which was consistently predominant across datasets. The connection to water through drinking, however, was not consistent across the datasets. The connection to water through drinking was hardly mentioned when people reflected on their connection to water through a waterbody. In contrast, when people reflected on their connection to water as a general concept, connection through drinking was a predominant response, when compared with other ways of being connected. Since connection is imperative for sustainability-related action, this finding offers a contribution towards explaining why there are existing water sustainability issues in Ontario and point to a critical opportunity for changing human–water connectedness in the post-pandemic world.

The way people were connected to water was analyzed utilizing four dimensions (i.e., geographic, gender, temporal, and scale) to identify how these dimensions may influence connectedness. This analysis revealed that people in the north are more likely to be connected to water because of where they live (i.e., in proximity to a waterbody), people in rural areas are more likely connected through health and general purposes, while urban dwellers are more likely to be connected to water through their careers and spirituality. Proportionately more males were associated with connections through a water career and the environment, while females were connected in a higher proportion through spirituality. It was also possible to identify through their water stories, that more people were connected to water in the past, than in the present. When considering scale, there were some connections that were identified across three scales, individual, community and provincial, while others were mentioned predominantly at the personal scale. Water connection related to sustainability were most often identified in the domain of “others” (i.e., community and provincial scale) and not mentioned as frequently or at all at the individual scale.

Beyond what could be accomplished by changing the connectedness to water status quo, this research also creates a compelling case as to how this could be accomplished through storytelling as tool for transformative learning about water. Through both the survey and the virtual roundtable, participants identified that thinking about the way that they were connected to water by considering their water story changed their connectedness to water, including in some cases, changing the ways they were connected and also strengthening existing or new connections. The adoption of storytelling as a method to support individual and community thinking, discourse and learning about water shows the potential to broaden and deepen human connectedness to water, in turn contributing to a more sustainable future for both water and the people of Ontario.

This is a novel research project that advances knowledge for water sustainability by identifying how people were connected to water before the COVID-19 pandemic. The connectedness results can be utilized as a baseline for future comparative and exploratory research regarding the impact, if any, of specific initiatives aimed at changing the complicated human relationship with water to support broad, societal adoption of sustainability related action. Further, storytelling is identified as a practical method for seeding this action. This research process also provided insights which enabled the development of theoretical, methodological, and practice-based recommendations to advance water sustainability.

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