On a sunny Saturday morning, a major water main broke west of Boston, spilling eight million gallons of water per hour into the Charles River. The metropolitan water authority tapped other reservoirs and back-up water supplies, but they were concerned about the water quality.
Within hours, 2 million residents were alerted to a water advisory to boil water for one minute before drinking or cooking. The city tested out its emergency response system: Tens of thousands of multi-lingual automated phone calls went out, electronic billboards flashed the news, and police drove through neighborhoods broadcasting the water advisory. The public officials who took to the airwaves were calm and informative, clearly explaining the situation and counseling citizens on how to respond.
As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book, Paradise Built in Hell, “Disaster, along with moments of social upheaval, is when the shackles of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up.” Boston’s situation was hardly a disaster, but it did give us a glimpse into our civic preparedness—a glimpse at once stunningly hopeful and predictably troubling.
Everywhere I went, the conversation was about water—an informal “clean water appreciation day” in greater Boston. Parents talked to their children about where water came from. Sunday religious services gave thanks for clean water and offered prayers for those around the world without access to clean water. On Monday, teachers turned the water crisis into a teachable moment, explaining to students about the sources of our water (the Quabbin Reservoir) and about how to ensure water safety.
Within 48 hours the pipe was fixed, all the more amazing as the breach occurred on a weekend. By Tuesday morning, the water emergency was over. No one was reported sick. At no time was the flow of water impeded or limited.
After decades of anti-government bashing, local commentators made a point of celebrating a job well done, while Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick praised the quick response of the invisible workers who manage our water commons. Neighbors looked in on their vulnerable neighbors to make sure they knew about the advisory and had access to clean water.
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But not all reactions to the brief crisis were so graceful. Despite strong government leadership and the tone of calm, some people responded out of fear. Some shoppers got into shoving matches around the bottled water section of stores. Others engaged in price gouging, doubling or tripling the price of water. This behavior was troubling because the stakes were so low—this was just a simple “boil water” alert. Water was in abundant supply, it simply had to be boiled.
Boston’s “water drill,” while laying bare the water commons many of us take for granted, raised the question of how we might respond to a more serious disruption in water, food, and energy systems. Local common security clubs and other groups concerned with community resilience viewed this as a dry run for more serious disruptions that may occur in the future. And it revealed some weakness in our civic preparedness: If people withdrawal to a fearful and selfish place during a minor emergency, then we have more community strengthening to do.
The Boston water emergency was a curious gift in water mindfulness for an entire metropolitan area. Now let’s get to work strengthening our civic institutions to prepare for future disruptions.
This article was adapted from a piece that originally appeared at , a web site and organization devoted to exploring the many dimensions of the commons.
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