Adult and child washing hands in a sink

What’s Required to Ensure the Provision of Safe Drinking Water in Canada’s Indigenous Communities?

By Wes Bova

Canada contains approximately 2,902 cubic kilometers of fresh water, ranking fourth amongst the world’s freshwater resources by country. Being such a water-rich nation, it’s no surprise that the Indigenous water crisis has captivated public attention and gained traction with extensive media coverage and class action litigation.

In cooperation with Indigenous communities, the Government of Canada has contributed to lifting 135 long-term drinking water advisories on reserves as of July 18, 2022. This commitment is long-awaited and a relief to many Indigenous communities that now have access to clean, reliable drinking water for the first time in years – and for some, for the first time in their lives.

Six years after Canada made the commitment to end drinking water advisories, Indigenous communities and their allies are recognizing that there are factors that extend beyond the construction of a new water treatment plant that require attention to ensure clean, potable water becomes a mainstay. To truly eliminate long-term drinking water advisories, there is a need to address more than water treatment and distribution. Many Indigenous communities need support to find a sustainable solution to manage other aspects of water infrastructure, including: distribution from the source to the tap and ultimately, the water’s return to the natural environment; operations and maintenance (O&M) funding; and long-term asset management. In addition to infrastructure and operations support, many Indigenous people are experiencing mental health impacts that stem from long-term drinking water advisories.

Why clean water isn’t enough

Many Indigenous people characterize the impact of living with decades-long drinking water advisories as trauma and are requesting mental health support so they can begin to heal. For example, there have been instances when Health Canada has recommended bottled water for young, elderly, and immunocompromised members of a community, but indicated that the same water is safe for others to consume and cook with after standard boil water procedures, leading to worry and frustration. Some community members also experience rashes and different reactions (caused by disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethanes) from simply bathing with water obtained from a system on a long-term drinking water advisory, which naturally adds to a person’s stress and anxiety. Identifying a holistic approach to water management is just one of the ways we can keep long-term drinking water advisories from recurring. By completing an assessment of the water source, distribution, treatment, sewage collection, and treatment infrastructure and procedures during the design and construction of new water systems, we can take the first step toward supporting Indigenous communities in their healing journey.

Infrastructure risks impacts

Water that is well distributed, maintained and treated is critical to our quality of life, though many of us take it for granted. Imagine not knowing what it’s like to live with clean, reliable drinking water for years – or even decades. How can you trust your tap water if operational challenges such as inappropriate treatment or insufficient funding for O&M affect your health and wellness?

A lack of infrastructure or inability to trust existing water systems is a harsh reality for many Indigenous communities. This distrust is something that all project teams need to consider as they support Indigenous capital projects and government initiatives. The average Canadian uses approximately 335 litres (or 670 standard-sized water bottles) of water every day, and yet many Indigenous communities need to dedicate time and money daily to ensure they have enough clean water to support basic needs.

The University of Saskatchewan released a study on Indigenous water poverty that reports “ongoing stress and mental illness; economic challenges such as having to purchase bottled water, missing work, [a need to] replace treatment plant filters more often than typically scheduled; and undesired cultural and spiritual shifts like losing the ability to hold water ceremonies or continue traditional teachings. Participants [also] bore witness to [being] stereotyped as incompetent by non-Indigenous water treatment plant experts, and frustrations with federal policies were described in detail by Indigenous community councilors.”

By working directly with Indigenous communities and leaders, project teams can better understand local challenges and implement outreach programs that can contribute to the successful operations of physical infrastructure.

A comprehensive approach

As a status member of the Mohawks of Akwesasne, former Manager of Technical Services at Matawa Tribal Council, former President and Chair of the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC), and past Chair of the Trilateral Steering Committee for the resolution of LTDWAs in Ontario’s First Nations, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the concerns of Indigenous communities firsthand. It’s through connections with Indigenous communities and collaboration with agencies such as Indigenous Services Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment Conservation and Parks, the Chiefs of Ontario, and OFNTSC that’s allowed me to advocate for the adoption of a more comprehensive approach to water projects.

The following six actions enable project teams to better support Indigenous communities and government agencies as they build stronger connections and adopt a more comprehensive approach to Indigenous infrastructure:

  1. Build a baseline of water quality data. Knowing how water quality cycles for at least a year or more is a critical first step to effectively treating any water source. Investing in regular water quality and infrastructure performance tests is a great way to assess health and safety, environmental, and sustainability risks. Having a database of raw and treated water quality can also inform fluctuating operation and maintenance costs specific to a region, project and/or seasonal variations in treatment levels. Tailoring long-term operational goals to known or anticipated risks enables Indigenous communities to build a stronger case when applying for additional funding.

  2. Pilot test water treatability. The Walkerton Clean Water Centre’s (WCWCs) mission is “…to educate and support clients as they manage their water systems to safeguard water resources.” Organizations like the WCWC offer water treatability pilot testing, which includes determining how water reacts to different chemical treatments. The testing also verifies the treatment processes or chemicals needed to ensure the best water quality possible for the main water source. Incorporating this testing into your project plan can support your community’s project, as the results can inform water feasibility studies for new or rehabilitated infrastructure.

  3. Clearly demonstrate your operation and maintenance (O&M) expertise. O&M underfunding has left some of the existing water and wastewater infrastructure in an advanced state of deterioration. As Indigenous communities grow and modern design standards increase, so do water demands and pressures on ageing systems. Indigenous Services Canada has taken steps to rectify this by increasing O&M funding levels – a much needed change for many of these communities. Placing more emphasis on O&M in the planning and procurement phases enables you to understand the project owners’ vision for ongoing operations and enables you to incorporate O&M as part of the project’s design and construction. By sharing O&M lessons learned from similar projects, you can clearly demonstrate to Indigenous project owners that your team can assess operational assumptions and identify areas for improvement. Leverage your existing relationships with regulatory bodies and provide examples of how you’ve managed adversity on similar projects.

    For many, sustainable O&M includes the means to operate the facilities in addition to providing ongoing training to Indigenous operators. Consider elements that go beyond O&M and supplier manuals. Consider standard operating procedures (SOPs) that offer operators step-by-step solutions to typical and/or emergency situations. Step-by-step procedures are invaluable for communities with new operators who are working toward achieving certification.

    Additionally, project consultants and/or teams with local or accessible resources are better suited to support Indigenous communities. Communicate your availability to travel to and from the site to support ongoing operations, and resolve issues when they do arise.

  4. Hold community sessions throughout design and construction. Community education is critical to ensuring Indigenous people can begin to build confidence in water infrastructure and potable water sources. Understand that when it comes to access to clean water, people want to understand how treatment works and how you’ll handle delivery challenges. Take the time to explain how things will work in a non-technical way, as it helps humanize the project and thought processes behind the approach. Begin holding community sessions early in the design phase to ensure you have ample time to explain how the infrastructure will work, how the project will provide local job opportunities, and most importantly, to build confidence in the project and respond to community concerns.

    Community sessions are also a great way to spark interest in O&M as a career. Building interest in the industry helps diversify the marketplace and bring more talent to small, remote communities. Recognize a community’s struggles and concerns and be accountable where possible. Acknowledge that conventional water treatment systems aren’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Offer examples or quantifiable data to support the project and – more importantly – establish a stronger, more trustworthy connection with the community.

  5. Engage existing water treatment plant staff early. Including existing and future water treatment plant staff in a project’s design and construction phases offers advantages to all parties. Operators gain a greater understanding of the water treatment plant’s processes and procedures when they have the opportunity to be actively involved throughout detailed design and construction. Engaging directly with suppliers also gives staff more time to adjust to new treatment systems and equipment, ask questions, and learn directly from suppliers long before the plant becomes operational. Design consultants and contractors also benefit from early engagement, as operators can share past experiences and offer end user perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked during plant design. Including at least one plant operator who can contribute to the development of new water infrastructure gives project teams valuable insight and Indigenous communities a local resource with first-hand knowledge they can share.

  6. Establish an asset management plan. Ongoing asset management enables project owners to set long-term objectives, collect data and conduct needs analyses to build a long-term planning framework. When assets aren’t maintained or issues aren’t addressed promptly, project costs can escalate quickly. It’s important to consider the full lifecycle of water assets so they perform consistently throughout their full design life, make the most of available capital funding, and are maintained as part of a sustainable, cost-effective plan. Project managers can support Indigenous communities in the development and use of their asset management plan and offer guidance on how to optimize O&M costs, mitigate risks, and enhance long-term performance.

Establishing trust and working with Indigenous communities is paramount to the future success of water infrastructure and putting an end to the Indigenous water crisis. By building strong, collaborative relationships, project teams can get a feel for existing infrastructure and upgrades, and better assess a community’s specific needs and goals from a technical standpoint. Proactive adjustments to build a baseline of data, conduct region-specific tests, emphasize O&M during procurement, reassure communities, incorporate plant operators into the planning process, and establish ongoing asset management can make a drastic difference in how new infrastructure is received and how it will be cared for once the project is complete.

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