Conventional technologies for drinking water treatment are no longer considered adequate for ensuring the delivery of potable water to communities. This is particularly true in smaller, more remote communities, where the infrastructure for treatment of both drinking water and wastewater may be limited. Protecting the quality and quantity of drinking water at its source is considered essential for effectively managing and maintaining supplies of high quality potable water. Improper management of wastewater, hazardous compounds or wasteful consumption can degrade water quality and quantity.

Despite policy changes that promote a multi-barrier approach at provincial and territorial levels of government, source water protection is a relatively new concept for communities, including Indigenous communities in Canada’s North. The problems with drinking water quality recently experienced in the community of Kashechewan in northern Ontario illustrate the urgent need for these types of programs, since water treatment alone cannot be relied upon to protect human health. Water Proof 2, a recent report released by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, reports major drinking water concerns in First Nations communities and all northern regions where drinking water treatment technologies are often inadequate or poorly maintained.

Barriers to the barrier

Source water protection efforts within Indigenous communities often involve the contracting of engineering firms to collect technical information, such as identifying wellhead protection or intake protection zones. A lack of technical capacity within Indigenous communities and a lack of culturally appropriate communication skills on the part of technical experts can impede the translation and transference of this knowledge. In reality, the scope of source water protection plans is broader than these technical documents and must include community programs that can be implemented at the level of the individual household (hazardous waste disposal and septic system maintenance, for example), as well as community contingency plans. Work currently being conducted in the Yukon by the Institute for Watershed Science and the Indigenous Environmental Studies Program at Trent University is building capacity within Indigenous communities to fully implement their plans for source water protection.

Compounding the difficulties in protecting sources of drinking water is the reality that wastewater treatment systems that work in the south are often not appropriate for use in the far north. Wastewater in the North is presently discharged to lagoons or natural wetlands. Recent work by Fleming College and the International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has modified and validated the use of environmentally sound treatment technologies that are appropriate for enhancing natural wetlands as a viable management tool for wastewater produced by municipalities in the North. The International Network for Water Environment and Health (INWEH) at the United Nations University (UNU-INWEH) has developed a Virtual Learning Centre for Water to facilitate distributed learning education for integrated water resource management.

Figure 1: Relationships between watershed management, source water protection, IEK and drinking water treatment technologies for producing high quality potable water. The scope of the discussed project falls within the dotted rectangle.

Indigenous knowledge

In order to sustain source water protection plans over the long term, capacity building is required to increase community understanding of water management principles and to promote community acceptance. Source water protection planning must also acknowledge and incorporate the traditional Indigenous Environmental Knowledge (IEK) within the community. Within Indigenous communities in Canada, IEK is an integral component of community welfare and necessary for the development of effective watershed management strategies. Capacity building within northern Indigenous communities should provide a bridge between western science-based concepts of watershed management and IEK.

Watershed management is an essential first step for maintaining drinking water quality, while satisfying the other needs of the water resource. Wastewater treatment using appropriate techniques that come from IEK, such as the use of natural or constructed wetlands, is a part of the overall source water protection strategy (Figure 1). In fact, technological solutions for treatment of drinking water should be considered as one of the last barriers for ensuring high quality drinking water. If source water protection is effective, they might not be necessary. That being said, the drinking water treatment technologies that are used must be designed for northern Indigenous communities in order to ensure long-term sustainability.

Most Northern communities are adjacent to water. This is a river near Paulatuk, NWT. Photo credit: Lauri St-Jacques

Spreading the message

In 2009, the RBC Blue Water Project committed $500,000 to enhance capacity within Indigenous communities in Canada’s North to ensure that the natural sources of drinking water are protected from potential threats such as hazardous chemicals and wastewater that could degrade the quality and quantity of drinking water supplies. Capacity-building activities will include increasing community awareness, and enhancing technical and lay expertise for multi-barrier approaches to the protection of drinking water.

Experience gained and materials developed for this project will serve as a template for similar projects throughout Canada, and potentially within other Indigenous or marginalized communities elsewhere in the world. Partners in the project include Trent University by the Institute for Watershed Science, the Indigenous Environmental Studies Program and the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment at Fleming College in Lindsay, Ontario. The project will involve several other collaborating institutions and organizations for project management and delivery, including Yukon College in Whitehorse, Yukon; Aurora College in Fort Simpson, NWT; Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, Nunavut; the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources in Winnipeg; the Assembly of First Nations, headquartered in Ottawa; the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, headquartered in Ottawa; the UNU-INWEH in Hamilton, Ontario; and the UN Environment Programme – International Environmental Technology Centre (UNEP-IETC) in Osaka, Japan. Other collaborating agencies will include the Northern Territories Water and Waste Association, the Nunavut Municipal Training Organization and relevant municipal and territorial governments.

The project partners will develop a program to enhance the capacity of Canadian northern communities to develop and implement programs for source water protection, integrating technical training with local IEK in order to address the specific needs of northern communities.

By developing northern partnerships with both educational institutions and Indigenous communities, the training materials and approaches will be locally relevant and can be shared by all participants. It’s hoped that this approach will become part of a sustained effort to implement multi-barrier approaches to safe drinking water in Northern Canada and complement the ongoing efforts of local and territorial governments.

Brent Wootton is the director and senior scientist at the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment 
at Fleming College.

Chris Metcalfe is the director of the Institute for Watershed Science and Professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University.

—With files from Dan Longboat, director of the Indigenous Environmental Studies; Chris Furgal, associate professor in the Indigenous Environmental Studies at Trent University; and Gord Balch, manager of the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment, Fleming College.


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