Contaminated drinking water is a major source of concern for small and rural communities (SRCs) including First Nations reserves. Many small communities have water contamination problems that go largely undetected, while over 1,700 SRCs and over 100 First Nations communities across Canada are under boil water advisories in any given year. Beyond these evident problems, many emerging issues—for example, the presence of disinfection by-products (DBPs) and micro-pollutants in the water supply—lay beyond the scope of existing small system technologies.

Challenges for SRCs
SRCs have unique social/cultural, economic, political and technological characteristics that hinder best-practice solutions for their drinking water treatment installations. In order to achieve meaningful change, we must resolve several issues.

At the top of the list, communities and policy makers must make the protection of source water a major priority. They must develop a comprehensive source water characteristic database and prepare for future quantity and quality variations which could be caused by climate change and land-use modifications.

Many small systems in Canada currently do not possess sufficient treatment stages. While addressing systems and growing concerns regarding aging infrastructure, corrosion, DBPs, pathogens, and emerging micro-pollutants, SRCs must develop new technologies and improve existing technologies to make treatment faster, easier, more reliable, and cost effective—not forgetting to fully train and properly reward competent water system operators. But keeping trained water system operators in locations where they are often poorly paid, especially when better opportunities exist in nearby towns or bigger cities, presents another challenge.

All solutions require community-wide acceptance. At a more local and operational level, it is critical to establish and maintain pride in safe drinking water throughout communities. Finally, SRCs should share knowledge among all the stakeholders—it’s important to see how aspects of what has worked in some communities might apply to other circumstances.

Challenges for First Nations
Most First Nations water systems must cope with several of the same issues common to all SRCs. However, drinking water problems in First Nations have some added challenges, starting with funding inadequacies that make running water and sewage systems difficult. The water treatment plant that is the least expensive to build may be the most expensive to run, especially where source water quality is poor. The urgent need is to improve business and funding models as well as planning methodologies.

Coordinating various stakeholders (government, engineering firms, scientists, and First Nations) is necessary to make the most appropriate use of available funds. Currently, there’s also a significant lack of coordination among these groups. This has resulted in the misallocation of already scarce funding and in the poor design of treatment facilities. Due in part to poor design, scarce funding, and remote reserve locations, getting emergency help and supplies can be slow, costly and difficult.

Culturally, First Nations concepts of well-being and determinants of health may be different than those of the general population. Any solutions must allow for sustainable development and the concurrent promotion of community health. Additionally, traditional attitudes toward water are holistic and spiritual. The pervasiveness of this traditional view of the value of water and the related stewardship role for First Nations gives a strong sense of how the goal of achieving safe drinking water on reserves should be pursued.

Approaches to addressing identified challenges
Launched in April 2009, the RES’EAU-WaterNET network unites water professionals including technology engineers, scientists, economists, science policy experts, industry partners, and key stakeholders to leverage resources, people and knowledge to provide innovative solutions for small, rural, and First Nations drinking water treatment, with a focus on building foundations for a community-based participatory approach.

A general pathway is to focus on areas that seem to offer the most significant return on investment in terms of value for these communities. Along these lines, there are two strategic areas that stand out: collaborative technology roadmapping and collaborative innovation. The former deals with cracking the status quo and identifying drivers and priorities. The latter aims to come up with an integrative model of change.

Collaborative technology roadmapping
Relative availability of capital to fund treatment systems, but lack of money or subsidies for ongoing operations and maintenance is a significant issue. Many SRCs are eligible to apply for infrastructure grants; however, the operating and maintenance costs are usually the community’s responsibility. The per capita cost of operating water treatment systems in these communities is also high due to lower property tax bases. Thus, if the cost of treatment systems can be shifted toward capital and away from operations and maintenance, the funding scenario would significantly improve. Technologies such as advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) and membrane filtration are promising solutions requiring further research. In particular, technologies such as microfiltration (MF), ultrafiltration (UF), and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection may be very well suited to SRCs, given that they are compact (treat a large amount of water per unit of equipment footprint), can be highly automated, can be electronically monitored and controlled remotely, and represent some of the most advanced and robust treatment processes available today.

In terms of MF/UF, approaches to reducing the burden of maintenance requirements should be a top priority. These systems have substantial mechanical components that are susceptible to failure, including valves, pumps, instrumentation, and air compressors. MF/UF systems are also subject to fibre breaks, which can be labour-intensive to repair and reduce the effectiveness of the treatment barrier. Any reduction in the frequency of such breaks would be a major advance. RES’EAU-WaterNET technology projects are tackling some of these issues through investigating some emerging systems, some with fibres made from PVC and ceramics.

UV-based technologies also offer great promise for small system requirements. UV disinfection is currently an approved technology for water purification, and UV-based AOPs have shown great potential to deliver the additional benefit of reducing chlorine usage while degrading harmful emerging micro-pollutants. Two key research priorities of the RES’EAU researchers are to reduce the energy cost of system operation and to eliminate or reduce the use of chemicals (oxidants such as ozone, hydrogen peroxide) in the process.

Any technology suitable for “plug-and-play” style deployment in a small system setting must also be sufficiently robust to endure frequent water quality variations, especially those arising from flooding events, as heavy rainfall is responsible for about 78 per cent of waterborne disease outbreaks in Canada.  Not only should these systems be able to withstand flooding with little or no damage, they must also be able to treat potable water supplies that may be increasingly compromised by flood waters. The safe and environmentally benign management of treatment system residuals in SRCs is also an urgent need, one that is important for preserving sustainability.

Small systems must consider the occurrence of DBPs such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. Unfortunately, many small systems in Canada do not possess sufficient treatment stages to minimize DBP formation while providing sufficient pathogen inactivation. Risks are more pronounced in small systems because of higher variation in source water quality, higher probability of frequent contamination, and a greater difficulty to treat or disinfect this water.

The regulatory regime must create a fine balance between the contents of both microbial quality and DBP content, but a few factors make the formation and behaviour of DBPs difficult to understand: type and quality (variability) of source water (in terms of natural organic matter content, bromide levels), environmental conditions (such as temperature, pH), treatment strategy (precursor removal), disinfection methods (type, dose, location) and residence time of the treated water within the distribution system. Providing options to immediate problems should be a research priority. Here, we can identify two research questions. How much residual free chlorine is really needed in the distribution system? Can instrumentation be improved to facilitate better data collection by community members?

The creation of a comprehensive source water characteristic database, a proper and acceptable way of source water characterization, and a means of gathering and compiling data are urgent requirements. Ideally, this database would be available online for all stakeholders involved in small water system research.

The design and implementation of drinking water systems should take into account human perception. For example, many First Nations community members resist the idea of water treatment due to the taste of chlorinated water and a perception that, since they have consumed untreated water in the past without apparent harm, treatment is unnecessary.

Collaborative innovation
It’s evident that the water research landscape is changing and becoming multidisciplinary in nature. Environmental science, earth sciences, engineering and agricultural/ biological sciences continue to dominate water resources research, reflecting the importance of issues related to water pollution, water supply, and agricultural irrigation. However, according to a March 2011 report from global scientific journal Elsevier, trends are showing that the roles of other related disciplines, for example, social sciences—particularly economics and policy development—have grown in importance, as have computer sciences and mathematics.

Tackling SRC and First Nations drinking water problems through collaboration depends on substantial scientific and technological sophistication throughout three major areas: water, energy, and health. Currently, to put a small water system into service is no simple matter. It requires a stepwise cooperation among various stakeholders and involves obtaining all the necessary permits and approvals. Often, we face expensive, time-consuming revisions and changes in the design, construction, and/or the operation of the system. What if a cluster of small communities work with a team of water, energy, and health specialists and collaboratively develop a water system? Such partnerships, particularly when initiated by the communities that share common interests, are the most sensible, effective, and economically feasible way to meet the water treatment demands of all users.

Ideally, this collaboration will improve data collection, analysis, monitoring, and planning. The program will operate under common ownership, serve common interests, improve water quality monitoring and system maintenance, provide central management system and database, increase partners’ ability to respond to changes in the circumstances,  minimize health risks, and improve capital and operational efficiencies. This model encourages development and diffusion of innovations through reduced financial and technical risks, lowers the potential of total system failure, and provides easier trial and replacement of specific solutions and greater organizational capacity. A funding mechanism also needs to be established to provide the stakeholders access to appropriate capital.

A parallel approach: focus on areas of improvement in large urban systems that are potentially relevant to small systems. This could include developing technologies to support disaster recovery for large systems (such as what we’re witnessing in Japan) or technologies to supplement or provide backup water systems for small communities within larger urban environments. Modularizing the design of large systems in this way creates opportunities for new generation of entrepreneurs and small companies to tap into a larger market. The more emphasis given to building on the commonality between small and large water systems, the more attractive investment opportunities will be offered to venture capitalists and will add up to higher affordability for small communities.

The mere availability of innovative technologies cannot create a market. A catalyst to both strategies is a technology validation program, but not all communities have the capacity and resources to absorb the cost of pilot tests and validation to ensure that an alternative solution is a fit and returns more value for their investment. Collaboration with validation centres or programs, such as Environmental Technology Verification Canada or alternative provincial programs, creates an environment for smaller innovative solution providers (or local small companies) to validate their ideas at a competitive cost, accelerating adoption of technologies leading to potential economical and social benefit to both small businesses and communities.

Global changes favour investments toward large urban water systems, but RES’EAU-WaterNET believes that rethinking and refining alternative models for innovation are key factors in achieving affordability and robustness of solutions for small water systems. The network is well positioned to connect players involved in water, energy, and health areas to produce next generation of the water professionals who are ready to engage in community-based participatory solution-findings for small, rural water systems.  WC

Madjid Mohseni is RES’EAU-WaterNET’s scientific director and a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of British Columbia.


  1. Having worked north of 60 for over 30 years, this article misses some of the obvious operating problems, capacity and commitment. In all the years I have worked up here i have yet to see a simple diagram on the water treatment plant wall that shows even a lay person how the plant works and what needs to be done. I agree that we need practical plug and play systems but we also need simplicity and practicality not fancy systems that when a part breaks, requires days to fix, first to get the part and then to bring some one in to do the work.


Please enter your name here
Please enter your comment!