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IC-IMPACTS Providing Clean Water to First Nations Communities

UBC research team

UBC research team

Over five million Canadians lack access to a reliable source of safe drinking water, many of whom live in rural or First Nations communities. An investigation published by CBC in October, 2015 revealed that two-thirds of all First Nations communities in Canada had experienced at least one water problem between 2004 and 2014.

Researchers funded by the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC-IMPACTS) are partnering with some of those communities to address water quality issues and are helping deliver safer and cleaner water to communities in Canada. The Centre is currently funding 14 projects that are tackling different aspects of delivering cleaner water to communities in need.

One such project is led by Madjid Mohseni and Pierre Berube from the University of British Columbia. Drs. Mohseni (also the Scientific Director of the NSERC-funded RES’EAU-WaterNET) and Berube are working on creating innovative and robust water treatment technologies that can be used in communities across Canada. They are using two technologies commonly found in complex water treatment systems and retooling them to be more user-friendly and cost-efficient on a smaller scale. Dr. Berube is focusing on using membrane technology while Dr. Mohseni is focusing on vacuum ultraviolet technology to achieve simultaneous disinfection and organic contaminant removal.

Through consultation with eight different First Nations communities and assessing their water needs, it was clear that a new solution for water treatment was needed.

With the help of BI Pure Water, GE Water, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), and eight student researchers, Drs. Mohseni and Berube created a mobile water treatment facility that could be driven to various communities. A trailer-mounted system houses the advanced water treatment technologies the group had been working on.

The mobile treatment system was deployed at one of the reserves within the Lytton First Nations in the fall of 2014 where it was hooked up to the community’s water supply – allowing for the evaluation of various alternative treatment options. This strategy not only provided an opportunity to the team on the best treatment strategy suitable for the community’s water, but also helped the community water operators to become familiar with the proposed solutions and offer feedback towards optimizing the process.

This successful pilot demonstration led to the permanent installation of the technologies in the community, through capital infrastructure funding from AANDC.  This has resulted in the elimination of seasonal boil water advisories that the community had to deal with over the years.

Drs. Mohseni and Berube are now actively working with two other communities in BC: Tl’azt’en Nation and Texada Island, a non-First Nations community. “The problem isn’t a lack of financial investment,” says Dr. Berube. “It’s a lack of proper consultation with First Nations and other community members on a sustainable solution.”

By directly working with communities, the researchers have come to understand that the issue is more than just technology – affordability, usability, and awareness are also key in creating a sustainable solution. They’ve made sure that community involvement and education are key components of their project. “Community members need to be participating in the research to ensure the project is successful,” says Dr. Mohseni. “They have a lot of indigenous knowledge that could be of great value.”