UBC engineers are working with small communities to improve access to clean water
Two or three times a year, when the snow melts or the rain comes, Jim Brown has to issue a boil water advisory to friends, family and community. For some homes, the advisory is never lifted – their drinking water constantly tests high in bacteria and positive for E. coli.
More than five million Canadians do not have access to a reliable source of clean drinking water. Many of these individuals live in rural or First Nations communities.
“It used to be three homes and you’re eligible for a community water system but now we have to have five homes,” says Brown who as maintenance manager and supervisor for the Lytton First Nation oversees the community’s water systems, among other things. “Lytton First Nation has 56 reserves and 14 of these reserves are not under a community water system.”
When there is a boil water advisory, bottled water has to be provided. People like Brown, who live and work with the problem, understand the issue’s complexity. Cost, policy, system design and cultural values all factor into the equation.
These factors are something that Madjid Mohseni, a professor in UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been learning about for the last five years. In 2008, he and a team of partners from across Canada landed a $5.2-million Strategic Network Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and founded RES’EAU-WaterNET, an organization working to develop innovative water treatment technologies for small, rural and First Nations communities.
But instead of focusing on the technology – something Mohseni excels at as an engineer – he’s been working with communities to understand the root of the issues.
“Technology isn’t the barrier,” says Ted Molyneux, a senior water and wastewater engineer with the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). “They have to understand the other issues – affordability, awareness, governance, water safety plans and implementation.”
Molyneux and colleague Danny Higashitani, both UBC engineering alumni, helped connect Mohseni and his team with water operators, the individuals who work on water systems in First Nations communities.
“If they were going to be successful, they needed First Nations participating in the research that they were doing,” says Higashitani, Senior Engineer, Asset Management with AANDC.
Through a grant from the Peter Wall Solutions Initiative at UBC, Mohseni began building relationships with three B.C. First Nations. He and RES’EAU graduate students visited Lytton First Nation, checked out the systems that are currently being used and met the operators on Brown’s team.
Trying to find workable solutions
One of the biggest challenges is balancing access to clean water with cost. Many homes are located far away from towns or cities and sometimes even far apart from one another.
If you only have a few homes drawing water from the same place, how big and complex a system should you create? Is there a way to guarantee the water is safe without adding chlorine to it? Where should the water be treated – immediately after it comes out of the source or as it is coming out of a tap in a home? And who then is responsible for checking, maintaining and repairing the system?
This fall, Mohseni and the RES’EAU team hope to begin piloting some of the first designs in three communities in B.C. and Ontario. Mohseni is considering ultraviolet technology, called Vacuum UV, or VUV, that uses short wavelengths of photons, which oxidize and degrade nearly all contaminants in water.
“At this wavelength, water molecules absorb the UV and generate the oxidants,” says Mohseni. “It inactivates pathogens and degrades organic materials.”
Mohseni has received a second round of funding from NSERC and further support from partners. The funding will be used to pilot these technologies, build relationships with more communities, and expand the RES’EAU program to the point where boil water advisories are a thing of the past.
“Ninety-five per cent of First Nations communities are remotely located and there is a big need to find water systems that will work,” he says. “The public health and economic impacts of not being able to safely drink the water coming out of your kitchen tap are significant.”
Working in the community
Water sampling research
RES’EAU and community water operators have established a water sampling campaign. Operators collect and record water samples from their water source throughout the year. This helps develop an understanding of the water quality variations over time and helps design an approach to the water treatment system. For Brown, this project has provided other useful information. As more and more resource extraction projects move ahead in the region, Brown is worried that the water quality will drop. Now they have the data to compare with.
Youth Summer Camp
This summer, Mohseni launched a one-week youth summer camp for Aboriginal high school students. The students travelled from their communities to UBC and spent a week learning about the field of engineering and water treatment in the hopes of encouraging them to consider engineering as an option for their post-secondary education.
AANDC, Brown and Mohseni all stressed that water operators play a critical role in their communities. They felt there needed to be more opportunities for them to exchange ideas with engineers, researchers and each other as well as more opportunities for communities to recognize their work. On Oct. 2, 150 First Nation community operators and researchers are gathering in Vancouver for the RES’EAU IMPACT 2013 conference and the AANDC’s 6th Annual First Nations Water and Wastewater Operators conference.