Mobile water treatment helps First Nations access safe drinking water

It’s difficult for small, rural First Nations communities to come up with sophisticated technical solutions to the ongoing problems they have getting clean drinking water.

So a University of B.C. team is hoping to change that. The group is aiming to find the most feasible and sustainable water-treatment alternative that can be used long-term by taking a mobile water-treatment plant — essentially a small van — out to small communities and experimenting there.

In the van, students are testing simple, inexpensive techniques, from ultraviolet light filtration to ion exchange to activated carbon, for cleaning water on site.

“We hope to gather enough data and information [through the mobile unit], which others could easily implement for building a permanent water treatment there,” says Madjid Mohseni, the professor and scientific director of RES’EAU-WaterNET.

RES’EAU, which operates in seven universities across Canada, is dedicated to developing new technologies for providing clean water to small, rural and First Nations communities.

“Small communities often face challenges related to their size,” says Mohseni, “When it comes to ensuring the safety of the water, they don’t have the resources or the capacity to ensure that their water is being treated property. That’s the problem they face.”

The first of the mobile plants was sent earlier this year to a non-First Nations settlement, Van Anda, a community of 550 people located on Texada Island in the Straight of Georgia near Powell River.

The two students there are striving to implement a suitable plan to this community’s need for reducing the high level of dissolved organic carbon in the drinking water. Generally, the carbon comes from the decomposition of plants and animals in the water. The mobile plant will stay on site throughout the summer.

Another van will be on site in Dzitl’ainli (Middle River) community for two weeks starting late April. The community, located in the northern interior of B.C., is one of the multiple communities of the Tl’azt’en Nation.

Dzitl’ainli only has five to eight year-round residents, which is currently under a boil-water advisory. Two students will collect information on the seasonal variation in water quality and will organize two workshops with the community to seek feedback for a potential solution. 

Mohseni’s team tries to address the critical problem of unsafe drinking water by researching innovative technologies and testing them out in the field.

Many First Nations people have never known what it’s like to drink water directly from their taps at home. According to annual numbers from Health Canada, about one in six of Canada’s more than 600 First Nations communities is under a boil-water advisory at any time. Some of the advisories have been in effect for decades. Such situation is a real and ongoing threat to First Nations peoples’ health and the local environment.

Since 2013, the First Nations Health Authority — the first province-wide health authority of its kind in Canada — has been responsible for issuing water advisories in B.C.’s First Nations communities. As of Feb. 29, there were 22 boil-water and four do-not-consume advisories in B.C.

Sylvia Struck, the manager of the authority’s drinking-water safety program and adjunct professor in UBC’s school of population and public health, says there are many different reasons for the high number of drinking-water advisories in B.C., ranging from problems with infrastructure and water contamination to the insufficient supply of chemicals for treating drinking water.

Instead of using chemicals in water treatment, the UBC students who work in the mobile van are experimenting with green technologies.

Pranav Chintalapati is researching the use of ultraviolet light as a possible non-chemical solution to the emerging problem of algae blooms in B.C.

Sean MacBeth is researching a green process called electrocoagulation. This process is accomplished by running an electrical current through polluted water, causing the solids in the water to bond together like “miniature magnets,” and making it possible to filter out the pollutants without using chemicals.

Remote communities often have difficulties obtaining and transporting chemicals that are used to treat drinking water.

For the students, the chance to work with these small communities is a practical application of their education.

David Chan, a graduate student working with Mohseni and RES’EAU, says the ability to couple water treatment technologies with his “passion for working with communities” is a unique opportunity.

You don’t know how to solve their unique problems until you try different options in the field.” 


Timeline: getting safe drinking water to First Nations communities


Water advisories for First Nations communities in B.C. (2016)