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A Fresh Fix for Unsafe Water on First Nations Reserves

UBC students craft a blueprint for a healthy, reliable supply, collaboratively.

Katie Hyslop 13 Jan

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

As of last October, almost 20 per cent of First Nations communities in Canada either had to boil or couldn't drink the water coming out of their taps. That's in spite of the fact that by the end of 2014 the federal government will have spent about $3 billion on water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities since 2006.

In British Columbia, 31 out of 324 First Nations water systems were under a "boil water" order as of this month, according to the First Nations Health Authority.

But that doesn't take into account the almost 50 per cent of First Nations water systems deemed "high risk" -- for reasons ranging from poor infrastructure and water contamination, to inadequate record keeping and untrained maintenance workers -- in B.C. by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada's 2011 national assessment of First Nations water and wastewater systems.

The health authority emphasizes poor water quality is typical for all rural and remote communities, not just those of First Nations. But combined with the poverty, distrust of government and poor education scores found on reserves -- all related to past government policies like residential schools -- water problems simply compound the difficulties of life in these communities.

Madjid Mohseni, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of British Columbia, said the problem isn't a lack of investment by the federal government. It's a lack of consultation with First Nations people over how to fix it.

In partnership with the University of British Columbia's Institute for Aboriginal Health, and with funding from the Peter Wall Institute's Solutions Initiative, Mohseni and students from the chemical and biological engineering and applied science faculties are taking a different tack, through the Aboriginal Water Health Project.

Entering its third and final year, the project pairs students and researchers with three First Nations bands whose water systems range in quality from excellent to poor. The goal is to use community involvement and education to improve on-reserve water systems and empower First Nations people to play a more active role in solving their water issues.

"[First Nations] live on their land; they've been living there for centuries, for generations, for ages," said Mohseni. "They have a lot of indigenous knowledge that could be of great value."

'Water is a gift from the creator'

Mohseni and his team are working with about 25 different communities, ranging in size from a few hundred to a handful of residents. The communities sit on the reserves of three different nations: the Boothroyd, Lytton and Tl'azt'en First Nations, each with several different water systems.

The team relies on interviews with band officials, elders and community members about their experience with their water supply, how community water systems work, and the importance of chemicals like chlorine in treating water. Chlorine is controversial in many circles, and that's no different in First Nations communities.

"For First Nations, water is a gift from the creator. It's sacred. It's so pure when it's there in nature. Anything added to the water is like adding poison," Mohseni said.

"When I go to a community and say, 'This water needs to be treated, let's add some chlorine,' people don't accept it. Even though there might be some funding from government to put a treatment plant there, when there is no acceptance from the community, then that's going to be useless. People are not going to take care of that treatment system, they're not going to drink that water, so it's going to be wasted. The water quality goes bad because they don't maintain [it]."

But when the necessity of chlorine is patiently explained, minds are changed. Jim Brown, maintenance worker for the Lytton First Nation, said the biggest issue members of his reserve have with chlorine is the bad taste. But the elders at least know it's necessary, even if others complain.

"They know that in the past, a lot of their children died from E. coli and that in the water," he said.

Brown, who is responsible for maintaining Lytton's water systems, said only one of its 10 water systems has poor quality. Spring run-off increases the turbidity of the water, mixing up dirt and introducing pathogens to the water. An outside engineer hired by the band suggested the community dig a well, but minerals present in the groundwater would have meant additional water treatment that the federal aboriginal affairs ministry found too costly.

Brown turned to Mohseni, who brought the issue to fourth-year engineering grads, who after much consultation with Brown and the community, devised a much cheaper ultraviolet treatment solution to the water system's problems. If given final approval by Aboriginal Affairs this March, construction on the new system could be completed by June.

That design project falls outside of the Aboriginal Health Project, although both are occurring under Mohseni's watch and maintain the same values of community engagement. Both projects helped cement what could be a beneficial relationship for both the Lytton First Nation and UBC.

"To me, they're seeking how they can best work with First Nations," Brown said. "And if we can continue working with universities, I think First Nations would be better off. A lot of the research can be done at the UBC graduate level rather than paying engineers thousands of dollars for the same information."

Learning across communities

For the students involved, the Aboriginal Water Health Project is a chance to take their heavily theory-based degrees out for a spin in the field. In addition to the seven undergraduate students involved in designing Lytton's water treatment system, five students serve as research assistants for the Aboriginal Water Health Project.

Kaitlynn Livingstone, a UBC masters of chemical engineering student, is one of two research assistants currently working on the project. Interested in how engineering impacts communities and the environment since she took part in an Engineers Without Borders drinking water project in Ghana during undergrad, Livingstone found community engagement was more of an afterthought in UBC's engineering program.

"It's definitely not the focus of an undergrad. I think a lot of the focus is more on the technical side and the theory," she said, adding she does feel engineering education is changing to reflect the need to engage communities in projects.

Livingstone's discussions with elders, band officials and community members also deepened her understanding of First Nations history and their relationship with the federal government, and how water treatment systems are developed on reserves.

A complex system completely funded by the federal government, engineering solutions without consultation can't always account for nuances in community needs and environments, she said.

"What works in one community might not work in a community five minutes down the road," Livingstone explained. "It's very easy to see why systems get built that don't work or that break down, because the whole system is so complex. There's been a ton of learning around trying to understand that complexity and break it down."

The trust effect

The ultimate goal of the Aboriginal Water Health Project is not to come up with a single solution to First Nations water issues. Rather, Mohseni hopes it will develop a blueprint of how to address water issues in First Nations communities that can be adopted by First Nations organizations, and hopefully the Canadian government.

Although the project has been running for two years already, Mohseni said he didn't start to see markers of success until about six months ago, mainly in the form of earning the communities' trust.

"We can be a good advocate for the communities (to) government and other organizations," he said. "One of the community representatives recently made a comment that 'We believe and we feel that UBC's our advocate when it comes to us talking to government.'"

Part of that trust is due to the one-week water leadership camp UBC ran for the nation's Grade 10 to 12 youth at the university's Vancouver campus this past summer. It taught campers how water systems work and why water treatment is necessary. That knowledge transmission is essential for sustaining the work the Aboriginal Water Health Project is doing in these communities.

Although the project will end next year, there are plans to keep the summer camps and the relationship with First Nations communities ongoing.

"They were quite shocked at what they found swimming in the water," laughed Lytton's Brown, recalling the experience of First Nations youth who went to the camp.

"Word will get out from these kids that chlorine or disinfection of any sort would get rid of these pathogens. I know a lot of the members are opposed to chlorine, but once they understand what it does to the water quality, I think they'd have a better understanding."  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Health

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