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Sarah  Wolfe - University of Waterloo. Waterloo, ON, CA

Sarah Wolfe

Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability | University of Waterloo

Waterloo, ON, CANADA

Assistant Professor





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I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.

Research: Effectively addressing water problems requires contributions from technical, ecological and social perspectives. The objective of my transdisciplinary research program is to generate scholarly and policy discussions within the context of climate change uncertainty and extreme water events (drought/flood). My research approach is to gather, translate and combine the insights from geography (space/place attachment), environmental psychology (behaviour choices, belief-value systems and social milieu), cognitive science (emotion regulation), and knowledge management (information transfer) with findings on water decision-making processes. I am specifically interested in understanding the ways that individuals make water decisions outside of formal institutional rules, processes and policies. In particular, my goal is to integrate non-rational drivers into discussions of water governance and decision-making. I broadly define ‘non-rational’ drivers as individuals’ values, beliefs or emotions that are socio-culturally derived, often implicit and not readily quantifiable by standard metrics. I use mixed qualitative methods to explore these ideas, because I want to better understand how individuals and institutions make their water decisions, particularly under conditions of constraint or scarcity.

My SSHRC-funded research is an interdisciplinary examination of the social dimensions in water decision-making and governance. I question how and why water research and water decisions evolve using ideas from environmental and social psychology, cognitive science, geography and sociology. My research group examines 1) how individuals’ cognitive processing effects their perceptions, definitions and prioritisation of water issues, and 2) how this individual-level cognitive processing then scales up to group or societal decisions about water management.

Industry Expertise (5)


Environmental Services


Program Development

Writing and Editing

Areas of Expertise (11)


Water Decision Making and Governance

Water Research

Environmental and Social Psychology



Social Network

Water Efficiency


Higher Education

bottled water

Accomplishments (1)

Awards and Research Grants information (professional)

Please see cv or for list of awards and grants

Education (3)

University of Guelph: Ph.D., Geography 2006

University of Toronto: M.A., Political Science and Environmental Studies 2000

University of Guelph: B.A., International Development and Biophysical Environment 1999

Media Appearances (3)

Sounding the water alarm will backfire thanks to human nature

The Globe and Mail  online


Today is World Water Day, and experts everywhere are sounding the alarm about water problems. We’ll learn about children in distant lands who die from drinking contaminated water and women who suffer sexual assault because they don’t have access to private toilets. We’ll see photographs of urban flooding and the damage it has caused to municipal infrastructure and personal property. We’ll hear more about climate change, persistent drought and rising food prices. Someone will link water scarcity to the destabilization of societies and to violence and human migration. The list of global water problems is endless, daunting and heartbreaking...

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How to keep women on the career ladder

The Globe and Mail  online


As a new professor and someone who grew up with Marlo Thomas's Free To Be ... You and Me , I find it heartening to hear about the latest gender gap between men and women. Research shows that women now outnumber and outperform men in nearly every field at Canadian universities...

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Everything is not peachy

The Globe and Mail  online


Our baby was fussing for her next feeding, and our preschooler was turning somersaults on the couch as he negotiated for the next episode of Sesame Street. Meanwhile, we were up to our elbows in hot syrup and peeled peaches - and we still had another 15 pints of the little devils to go...

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Event Appearances (5)

The cognitive-affective sciences and water governance

Invited Lecture to the International Development Research Centre  Ottawa, ON.


Chasing the Dream: the myth of work-life balance in the water sector

Young Professionals Summit, Water Environment Federation and the American Water Works Association  San Juan, Puerto Rico


Building towards Water Efficiency - Research Findings

The 3rd National Conference on Water Efficiency and Conservation  Canadian Water and Wastewater Association


Building towards Water Efficiency: Policy Innovation and Education in New and Existing Homes

WaterSmart Innovations Conference  Las Vegas, Nevada


Social Capital in Community-Level Water Efficiency Programs: Reports from South Africa and Canada

nd National Conference and Policy Forum on Water Efficiency and Conservation  Waterloo, ON.


Articles (5)

Risk Perceptions and Terror Management Theory: Assessing Public Responses to Urban Flooding in Toronto, Canada

Water Resources Management

2016 Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that mortality salience (MS), or death reminders, should impact environmental behaviour and decision-making by increasing consumption and resource usage, shifting aesthetic preferences toward cultivated landscapes, and affecting adherence to environmental norms. We examined MS effects on residential flood risk perceptions in Toronto, Canada, following the major urban flood in July 2013. Survey responses were analyzed to assess risk perceptions across nine categories; ...

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Women’s “Choices” and Canadian Water Research and Policy: A Study of Professionals’ Careers, Mentorship, and Experiential Knowledge

Environmental Practice

2014 This article is an investigation of the different factors that potentially influence the career choices of Canadian female professionals working in water research and policy (WRP). This community was broadly defined as any Canadian engineers, technicians, biologists, planners, economists, scholars conducting physical and social research, public servants (eg, national, provincial, municipal), and civil society activists who were self-identified as working on water-related issues. Participants' essay responses were ...

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Assessing the social and economic barriers to permeable surface utilization for residential driveways in Kitchener, Canada

Environmental Practice

2014 Urban stormwater runoff rates are expected to intensify with climate change. Permeable surfaces, a low-impact development (LID) stormwater management technology, can be used to mitigate the impacts of urban stormwater runoff. Permeable surfaces have demonstrable benefits for use in northern climates, but widespread use requires greater recognition of this potential. This article reports on the multiple barriers associated with the installation of a permeable surface in single-family residences, along with the ...

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Mentorship, knowledge transmission and female professionals in Canadian water research and policy

Water Policy

2013 We face multiple water challenges: droughts, floods, crumbling infrastructure and disappearing natural hydrosystems. Technological interventions will help but these challenges also require social solutions and good governance. Identifying and implementing both technical and social solutions demands a resilient water research and policy community (WRPC). The WRPC must include diverse perspectives as the challenges increase in intensity, frequency and scope and as decision processes accelerate. Will the ...

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Water cognition and cognitive affective mapping: identifying priority clusters within a Canadian water efficiency community

Water Resources Management

2012 We often assume that researchers and decision-makers are rational beings reliant on hard data to determine the best policy. But individuals are also influenced by their experiences with their physical and social environments. How they perceive and interact with their environment is also important for decision-making. The brain processes these personal and professional experiences to generate the emotional responses and belief systems used to interpret environments. It is these brain-environment interpretation and ...

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