by Communications Coordinator – Saarah Rasheed

Every community, big or small, has unique conditions and challenges when it comes to accessing a safe drinking water supply. Whether there are concerns over saltwater intrusion, old infrastructure, or preserving important cultural traditions – all these factors come into play when designing water supply systems. 

This is especially true for coastal communities across the globe that at times experience additional barriers. As of now, British Columbia has more boil water advisories than any other province in Canada, majority of them being in rural and coastal communities – many of these communities are Indigenous communities as well. 

RESEAU Research Van. Photo Retrieved from RESEAU.

UBC’s RESEAU Centre for Mobilizing Innovation works with rural and coastal communities. They implemented the revolutionary ‘community circle approach’ to ensure all factors are taken into consideration so drinking water technologies can be better suited for these communities and address their specific water needs.

The community circle approach centres around an open conversation between local water professionals including Indigenous water knowledge holders and RESEAU engineers so the solutions they come up with are more informed and the community in question feels a sense of ownership of their new water system.  

“I get to see and speak with community members, the engineers, the chief and council, and water operators and learn what a good tech solution looks like to them”

Karl Zimmermann, a PhD student at UBC and a manager of a RESEAU project in the East Kootenays. 

During this discussion period, the community shares with RESEAU important characteristics about the local watersheds and their specific needs.          

Photo of PhD student Karl Zimmerman. Photo provided by Karl.

“Perhaps I’ll miss the seasonal changes, but if you talk to someone who has lived on the land for 40 or 60 years or many generations, they might know every 5 years that a river has some issue with it. This creates a more informed and involved process,” said Zimmermann. RESEAU then does most of their work on-site and invites the community to come and see their progress and attend meetings every step of the way.   

The rural inland community that Zimmermann manages was dealing with high levels of contaminants in their water supply. “Coastal communities are facing many of the same challenges as remote small communities in general,” said Zimmermann. With the guidance of the local community administration and water operator they were able set up a pilot program in two homes for a new water treatment system. This system was a success, and RESEAU was able to manage construction for it in the community. Two years later RESEAU has maintained a healthy and communicative relationship with this community. 

Now, what makes this approach so unique compared to the approaches of other engineering firms? 

Usually, the client community would hire a firm to design a system, the firm would then work separately and hand the community a book with a proposed plan for approval. “So that might work when you have the city of Burnaby, where the client is the city and you have engineers on staff and people who are educated and have the knowledge of what is required,” Zimmerman explained. “However, when you go down to these small communities which are between 20-300 people it’s so much more important to bring the personable aspect into it.” 

The community circle approach makes a world of difference for Indigenous coastal communities especially, which are often located in remote locations and have experienced a significant and lengthy boil water advisory. The Liberal government promised Indigenous peoples an end to all boil water advisories by 2020, many of the boil water advisories are still in place and a lot of work is still left to be done. Engineers who are interested in addressing this issue are drawn to RESEAU because of the community circle approach. 

Photo of Master’s student Jaycee Wright from the RESEAU Lab. Photo provided by Jaycee Wright.

One such person is Jaycee Wright, a master’s student at UBC studying biological and chemical engineering. As Wright is of Métis heritage this was immediately an appealing factor that set RESEAU apart.

“A lot of interesting things that go on between Indigenous communities and the water world and that can sometimes foster mistrust”

says Wright when explaining why this level of community engagement is so vital. 

Wright is currently working with RESEAU to bring an updated water treatment process to Gillies Bay, a remote island community on the southwest coast of BC where the community circle approach has been adopted. 

This community often has a boil water advisory in place in May to September and lacks a two-treatment process for water decontamination. RESEAU implemented 4 pilot technologies during a testing period and listened to the local water operator and community to see which one would be successful. “RESEAU has been working on really fostering that communication and camaraderie and understanding that water isn’t a one size fits all approach you really have to dig into the problem and make sure that everyone’s listened to,” said Wright. 

The next steps of this project are underway. RESEAU is planning on bringing the technology back to UBC to analyze the data and put together a recommendation report to present to the community so they can decide which they prefer. This leaves the decision making in the hands of those who will be using the system.

But what could other global coastal communities stand to learn from this method? 

Although RESEAU assists in rural and coastal communities in Canada, both Zimmermann and Wright are both engineers who vouch for the community circle approach internationally and want others to recognize the benefits of having this type of community engagement. 

“Engineers tend to gravitate towards an idea, thinking this is super cool, it’s going to work perfectly, and then we just run forward with it and sometimes that works, but other times it doesn’t” Wright explained. “This also allows us to build trust with the communities, so they know their voices are being heard rather than just being told this is what you need.” 

Photo of Jaycee Wright conducting research. Photo provided by Jaycee Wright.

Coastal communities all over the world face similar issues including the challenges of remoteness, lack of resources, fewer populations and more. But perhaps through employing this approach, those invested in water sustainability can be one step closer to understanding the at times overlooked differences that makes each of these communities unique. 

Top 3 Methods RESEAU Researchers use to Approach Community Engagement. 

  1. School Programs

RESEAU exposes students to water sustainability issues to get young people asking, ‘where does our water come from?’ They do this through school programs on UBC campus and by visiting classrooms. Through this education RESEAU hopes to create awareness of water sustainability that will guide students for a lifetime. 

  1. Collaborative Research

Before any work is done in a community RESEAU engineers meet with water operators, Indigenous knowledge holders, Chief Council, and any locals who have an informed perspective on the watersheds in the community. Through this collaborative research method engineers can get an understanding of the specific conditions and factors that may affect the water systems they are building. 

  1. Bringing the Lab to the Community 

RESEAU brings their portable lab to the community, so they are able to invite locals to see the work they are doing. Everyone from students to scientists are invited watch as their new water system is being built and tests are being done. This level of inclusion allows communities to feel a sense of ownership of the new water system and better understand how it functions. 

Tune into Waterlution’s blog for more stories on amazing innovations in the field of water sustainability.

Portrait of of Saarah Rasheed. Portrait by Helena Vallée Dalaire.

SJ Rasheed (she/her), is a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University, Ottawa and now resides on the coast of BC, where she grew up. She is interested in working in the intersection of environmental and Indigenous justice and hope to do this activism through her writing and participating in community engagement opportunities.