Leadership Insights by Shannon Waters

Daily life eventually requires us all to rest and heal. I am fortunate.


The winding down of summer signifies change. In my home territory of Cowichan, this includes shorter daylight hours, leaves turning color, and school preparations for many families.

This year's transition was accompanied by a pain in my gut that I tried to avoid, or explain away, but kept getting stronger.

As a physician in a small community, I self-consciously went to our local emergency department - in the middle of the night - because the pain was prompting action. Hours after my initial assessment, an ultrasound revealed the source. I had appendicitis.

The pain was prompting action.

I have good access to quality health care, a husband and family to help care for my two daughters, friends routing for me, and colleagues covering my work.

Still, while lying on the gurney having one last conversation with the surgeon and anesthetist before my surgery, I felt incredible humility that -for all my strength and ability - I was putting my life into the hands, minds, skills and intent of those responsible to assist me.

As expected, my surgery was successful, and my vulnerability is dissipating with my recovery.

The Quw’utsun River ('the River') and watershed touches the lives of all in the valley region through means such as being:

  • A source of drinking water,
  • An important player in food security as a home for salmon;
  • A place for recreation/solace/cultural practices; and therefore, supporting physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health;
  • An important resource for income security of those whose jobs are connected with the River.

The River has been experiencing pain for some time due to reasons that are both complex and multi-factorial.

  • Hotter, drier summers have brought eleven droughts to the Cowichan Valley since 1998, with 2019 being the worst year so far.
  • A decreased snowpack has contributed to lower water levels in Cowichan Lake, which feeds the Quw’utsun River.
  • The reduced inflows to the lake are no longer adequate to provide the river flows necessary to maintain the ecological balance of the River and rich diversity of life it has supported for millennia.
  • The River, and the ecosystem it supports, are in a state of incredible vulnerability.

Just hours after I came out of surgery, the Quw’utsun River went on “life support”. Pumps have been installed to bring water from the lake to the River to keep it flowing.

The essence of the River - its life force, energy and flow - is now in our hands, minds, skills and intent.

For someone looking down at the River on one of the bridges in town, they would not notice a difference.

However, at the source, everything has changed.

As a Hul’qumi’num person, our lives have been intertwined with the river for generations upon generations. Yet never before has our interdependence been so blatant, so tenuous. 

The pumps are now running until the rains come. In a world that favours predictable outcomes, we now wait for the unknown, with the River, salmon, trees, aquifers, and countless others. Vulnerability is not abated.

Will the River's pain prompt our action?

Our world can be extremely proficient at dealing with appendicitis but not so with carbon emissions and a disrupted climate.

My own course of illness is very different from the River. The pain and vulnerability in my home territory is mirrored in countless places around the planet.

As a physician looking after the health of the public, I see this as the most significant threat to our health and weave the message of this threat into all the work I do.

The immediacy of finding ways to address our disrupted climate jolted me this past July as I absorbed the reality that in order to reduce our carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, we have just 18 short months to “save the planet”. 

This can all feel very overwhelming as “decisive, political steps to enable the cuts in carbon to take place” can seem very distant from our day-to-day lives.

I have absorbed this jolt and utilized it to spark a journey using my skills in advocacy and health policy.

I will use my mind and hands to identify and cultivate ways to support these steps happening.

My intent is that, after all the Quw’utsun River has given, I will be able to give something back.

Over the next 16 months I will share my journey, in hopes of spreading this commitment of reciprocity, of more people asking, “How can I give back”?


Shannon Waters is a Public Health + Preventive Medicine Physician, Connector and Hope Builder. In her current leadership role as Medical Health Officer for the Cowichan Valley Region at Island Health Shannon works to bring a voice to not only the health of her community but to Mother Earth.

Learn more about our AMPLIFY program for senior leaders here.


  1. Lindsay on September 14, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    I’m so grateful so see this perspective shared. We are connected and our health and the health of our planet and waters cannot be separated or ignored.

    Thank you.

  2. Clara Rempel on September 15, 2019 at 10:16 am

    I hear you Shannon Waters Thank you for your sharing in this. Yes I am very interested in learning how to contribute to the health of
    Quw’utsun River. And I am interested in developing leadership skills, I don’t have a website.

  3. Phil Kent on September 16, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    All I can add Shannon is, Thank You Respect,


  4. Griffin Russell on September 16, 2019 at 7:47 pm

    Touching and inspiring, thank you Shannon!

  5. Savanna Boyle-Macleod on September 18, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for this beautifully written and clearly articulated argument for the health and wellness of our planet and our people. #EarthWarrior

  6. Clare Attwell on January 7, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you Shannon- you have a powerful voice. We hear the truth of what you say – and feel encouraged to speak up too!