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Prof. Madjid Mohseni says unsafe drinking water is the cause of an estimated 90,000 illnesses every year - photo by Martin Dee
Prof. Madjid Mohseni says unsafe drinking water is the cause of an estimated 90,000 illnesses every year - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 4 | Apr. 2, 2009

Too Many Canadians Without Safe Water: $5.2M to Help

By Brian Lin

For six million Canadians, quenching their thirst isn’t a matter of simply turning on the kitchen faucet.

“Water quality in 1,700 small and rural communities across Canada – some as close as half an hour drive from a major metropolitan area such as Vancouver – can be as bad or worse than that in developing countries,” says Madjid Mohseni, an associate professor in chemical and biological engineering. “For example, nearly 100 First Nations communities live under permanent boil water advisories.”

Now with the help of a $5.2-million Strategic Network Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Mohseni, as principal investigator, is joining forces with 14 researchers from seven universities to make technology available that ensures clean water for all Canadians. The grant establishes a national network of scientists called RES’EAU-WaterNet to address the social, economic and technological challenges faced by small and rural communities.

“When we talk about poor water quality we think of major cases such as North Battleford, the Kashechewan First Nations Reserve, and Walkerton, Ont., where seven people died and more than 2,000 residents got ill as a result of an E. coli outbreak that contaminated the town’s water supply in May 2000,” says Mohseni, an expert in water purification systems. “The truth is, Health Canada estimates that unsafe drinking water is the cause of 90,000 illnesses and 90 deaths every year. That’s the equivalent of 13 Walkerton tragedies.”

In 2001, a compromised water system in North Battleford, Sask., led to the infection of more than 6,000 people with cryptosporidiosis. In 2005, 800 members of the Kashechewan First Nation in Northern Ontario were evacuated after E. coli bacteria were discovered in their water supply system.

Vancouverites only need to go as far back as November 2006 to recall the health concerns and inconvenience of a temporary boil water advisory. Severe storms raised the turbidity level of the water supply. As a precaution, residents of the Lower Mainland were advised to boil their drinking water for two weeks.

“The city of Vancouver has one of the highest-quality water supplies in Canada because its North Shore watersheds belong to the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the city has a system that includes skilled operators who monitor the treatment and distribution systems 24-7,” says Mohseni. “For many smaller communities, where water supply routes span several jurisdictions and infrastructure funding is lacking, safeguarding water quality becomes much more complicated.”

Eighteen research projects will be carried out over the next five years and involve 33 industry and government partners to ensure new knowledge is immediately applied. Since more than 75 per cent of water treatment facilities in Canada are located in small and rural communities, advances made by RES’EAU-WaterNet collaborations could not only improve water quality but potentially generate economic and humanitarian benefits.

Mohseni and four other UBC researchers – Pierre Bérubé, David Wilkinson, Elod Gyenge and Rehan Sadiq – will investigate the feasibility of new and existing technologies to be used in rural areas.

Ultraviolet light photocatalysis – the use of UV light to eliminate contaminants – for example, has been explored as an effective option for water treatment but remains too costly for large communities. Smaller-scale versions that incorporate new technologies, however, could deliver desired results for small, rural communities. Mohseni and colleagues will be looking at ways to utilize sunlight, LEDs and special coatings for photoreactors to overcome some of the biggest obstacles in advancing this technology.

“We plan to bring the technologies past not only the initial proof of concept, but also the on-site validation stage,” says Mohseni, “That is, we will evaluate the technologies on-site using real water and operating conditions. This would make the technologies ready for adoption and implementation by industry and small communities.”

In addition to technological challenges, small and rural communities also face unique social, economical and governance barriers, Mohseni adds. “With RES’EAU, we’re bringing together a multidisciplinary team of experts who have already earned a reputation throughout the water research community for putting small rural communities first.”

“We simply cannot afford to allow the existing challenges to exclude millions of our citizens from access to a vital requirement for their survival and advancement,” says Mohseni. “All Canadians have the right to easily access clean water, regardless of where they live.”

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Last reviewed 06-May-2009

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