Access to clean drinking water is a basic human need, but over six million Canadians can’t depend on the water coming out of their taps to be safe. Many of their communities are Indigenous or remote, and some have lived under boil water advisories or relied on bottled water for decades.
At a time when reconciliation is top of mind for Canada, and sanitation and handwashing are key to limiting the spread of COVID-19, reliable water infrastructure is long past due.
The University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Applied Science and the RESEAU Centre for Mobilizing Innovation are working with local communities to build durable solutions. Thanks to their collaboration with a remote Lhoosk’uz Dené community in Northern BC, a village of 50 people can drink water straight from the tap for the first time in 20 years.
Led by Madjid Mohseni, professor of chemical and biological engineering at UBC, the team developed a community-driven and collaborative design approach called Community Circle. Recognizing that there is no single technology that will fit every situation, the process ensures that the water treatment technology selected for each community is a match for their particular geographical and cultural needs, and that it can be readily maintained using local resources in the long term.
“We’re so off-grid that many people don’t even know where we are. Even the nearest hospital is three hours away,” said Chief Liliane Squinas in a press release. “If the system breaks down, it’s not as simple as going to the nearest hardware store for replacement parts.”
Through Community Circle, the researchers conducted a microbial and chemical risk analysis, and gave the local community a seat at the table when drafting water safety and asset management plans. A robust treatment system was selected that combines ultraviolet light with chlorine-based disinfection to ensure that treated water is safe to drink. Its simple design means that routine operation, maintenance, and repairs don’t require specialist skills or expensive replacement parts.
The result is reliable access to water that is free of dirt and contamination, and also tastes great.
“It’s important to work very closely with each community, understanding their unique history, values, culture, geography and long-term vision,” added Mohseni. “You want a solution that is sustainable and respects local skill sets and priorities.”
The persistent issue of clean drinking water has been drawn out for so long that for many communities, trust in the system has been broken. Water projects that are a poor fit can easily fail and fall into a state of disrepair, landing communities back at square one. This is a cycle that has repeated itself for too long.
Rebuilding a long-term solution starts with giving citizens a voice, and no one solution is going to fit every community. Engaging the public lets local people take ownership of the process and increases the odds of long-term success.