Drum beats echoed through the thin mountain air, and rich voices chanted out beautiful lyrics to unrecognizable songs. Groups of people surrounded two large drums and took turns beating rhythmically and leading the song. Minutes later, the beat changed, and the familiar rhythm and lyrics to the Bollywood hit, Jai Ho, were being produced from one of the drums where a group of students from India were invited to share their culture. Myself and 25 graduate students from across Canada, India, China, Lebanon and Iran were taking part in a pow-wow in ʔaq̓am, a member band and reserve commenty, within the Ktunaxa Nation, a community of roughly 60 homes in the interior of British Columbia. The gathering featured fry bread tacos—a delicious fusion of Indigenous and Mexican cooking—traditional dances and dresses, mingling of community members and guests, and now song and dance from India. We were celebrating the close of a fulfilling week, as well as the diversity of cultures present.
What does all of this have to do with water?
Joining Together to Consider Resource Issues in Communities.
An estimated 140 First Nations communities in Canada lack access to clean or running water, the majority of which have had a boil water advisory on for months, and even years.
At the IC-IMPACTS Summer Institute, hosted at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 26 graduate students had the opportunity to learn more about issues related to improving water infrastructure, accessibility and quality in low resource settings.
The week started with an introduction of what IC-IMPACTS is—a scientific research centre dedicated to building connections between scholars in Canada and India—followed by a variety of team-building and ice breaker games facilitated by Waterlution’s Dona Geagea. These were vital to building connections among the diverse group of students. The group was made up of 12 students from India and 14 students from Canadian universities, all with different research interests and all offering diverse perspectives.
Considering Cultural Awareness and Integration of Disciplines
The ʔaq̓am reserve is one of the First Nations communities affected by a permanent boil water advisory, and traces of arsenic and other toxins remain in their wells. As a group, we had the unique opportunity to apply teachings from the days prior, and consider if partnerships between students and the community would be beneficial to solving the region’s water issues.
All of the participating students came with fascinating research, and a number of them with ingenious technologies; many specifically geared to improving water quality in communities.
But we quickly learned that integrating academic research into community wasn’t so straightforward. To provide these useful tools into low resource settings, communities needed to be consulted first, and when applicable, involved at the earliest stage possible through use of participatory and indigenous research methodologies. We also learned it was vital to build trust and foster reconciliation. To achieve this, key recommended methods were: commitment of time, building of community connections, learning specific community traditions and history, and cultural acknowledgement.
We learned throughout the week that this was a dynamic, complex, and often case-specific process that varied greatly depending on the community. Combined with the academic and community partnership, was the need to integrate social, scientific and political disciplines, in order to look at solving complex water issues in a more holistic light. Specialists needed to effectively communicate and share knowledge. Networking events, team building activities, presentations and facilitation were all used to promote connection among disciplines.
Equipped, Inspired and Impassioned
Over the course of the week we were exposed to just a sample of what solving complex water issues may look like.
I realized one key tool I had learned was the importance of learning from those around you, especially those from different cultures, cities or disciplines. I realized how vital it was to acknowledge and respect these differences in order to work together. I also realized that, like that day listening to drum beats in the sun, it’s important to celebrate and share experiences, in order to move forward in a way that facilitates the solving of complex issues—notably ones that are still prominent the world over—such as water accessibility. Leaving the Summer Institute after 6 action packed days, I felt excited and motivated. Not only had I gained valuable knowledge and practices to tackle issues surrounding water; I had made dozens of connections with academics, specialists and community members, all with diverse cultures and perspectives, and all intensely passionate about solving resource issues that plagued communities today.
If you have the chance to participate in a similar cross-cultural learning experience, whatever the nature or context of your water work – I highly encourage you to jump at the opportunity!
by Emma Seward
Emma Seward is an M.Sc. student at McGill University in the Integrated Water Resource Management program. Her focus includes water policy, and how governance impacts indigenous and marginalized populations across the globe.
Next Week’s Teaser
Next week, stay tuned for Maricor Arlos’ story of how she discovered her connection to water through Waterlution, and how she’s bringing that water connection to her hometown in the Philippines.
Written by Sylvie Spraakman and Maricor Arlos. Sylvie is an EIT working on researching and implementing low impact development for stormwater management systems. Maricor Arlos is a PhD candidate studying how changes to wastewater treatment technologies can affect emerging contaminants. They both love volunteering with community, environmental & political initiatives, and being subservient to their cat masters.