Spotlight on Canada: Indigenous concerns with water quality continue

Date: June 21, 2016

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Original blog post by the Editorial team, posted in FluksAqua CommunityWater and wastewater communityWater plant operator

The survival of Canada’s Aboriginal people is tied directly to the quality of its water as it is a critical and sacred element. B. G. Cheechoo, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation from 1988 to 1994, said the history of Canada’s Aboriginal people is tied to rivers, lakes and oceans: “Our continued reliance on fishing, trapping and hunting and our desire to do so is dependent on these waters. Our future is based on these waters . . . Any threat to such waters poses a direct threat to our survival.”

Canada not meeting its water obligations to aboriginal peoples
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its study of water quality conditions in First Nations communities June 7, and the results are devastating. The group says Canada’s lack of action regarding the water crisis in First Nations communities violates the United Nations statement regarding everyone’s right to sufficient amounts of safe, affordable, accessible and acceptable quality water.

Senior researcher and report author Amanda Klasing says: “New investments in water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nations reserves should be accompanied by enforceable regulations, sufficient funds for capital, operation, and maintenance costs for community and household systems, and mechanisms to track progress. Canada should establish an independent First Nations water commission with authority to monitor and evaluate water policy and outcomes that affect First Nations.”

Among the problems facing First Nations peoples that the HRW researchers identified are:

  1. Contaminants in the drinking water (both naturally occurring and those resulting from poor wastewater management)
  2. Long-term water advisories (some exceeding ten years)
  3. Health issues including rashes, infections and other skin conditions
  4. Insufficient water sources for drinking, bathing, dishwashing, etc.
  5. Insufficient resources to manage and maintain water plants effectively.

A particular concern is the lifestyle changes First Nations peoples experience. The report says many people in First Nations communities have never been able to drink water from the tap because of the long-term effects of water advisories. Some people have limited or altered their hygiene practices to avoid contaminated water, while others no longer care about the problems and risk ill health as a result. Cultural practices are also affected as ceremonies, hunting and fishing customs, and women’s traditional role as water keepers, cannot be carried out when water is contaminated.

The lack of quality water also means First Nations communities are challenged in providing adequate housing to their residents. Existing housing is often overcrowded and long wait lists lead to frustration and stress. The researchers say housing cannot be increased because communities lack the infrastructure for expansion or they are unable to maintain what resources they do have.

Some issues have not changed

To meet First Nations needs, the water industry must ensure access to water, maintain quality, and support infrastructure in remote areas. The quality of drinking water in Canada’s Aboriginal communities has been an issue for years.

  • One First Nations community has been under a boil water advisory for 20 years.
  • The June 2015 issue of The International Indigenous Policy Journal states that in 2011, only 45% of the 143 First Nations in Ontario and 51% of the 160 First Nations in British Columbia had water systems with a fully trained and certified operator.
  • A 2013 national assessment of Canada’s reserves and Aboriginal communities by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Canada found “17% of water systems and 21% of wastewater systems are operating either at or beyond water treatment capacity.”

Drinking water advisories on the rise
That same assessment states drinking water advisories (described by Health Canada as either “boil water” advisories, “do not consume” advisories, or “do not use” advisories) increased 35% in Canada between 2007 and 2011. The increase is linked to both improvements in water testing and in the higher number of maintenance issues faced by water treatment plants.

According to Health Canada, as of March 31, 2016, there were 133 drinking water advisories in effect in 89 First Nations communities across Canada, not counting British Columbia.

However, small communities often issue boil water advisories more frequently because they have greater issues with operational capacity. What may take a relatively short period of time to identify and repair in a large urban centre may take much longer in a rural or remote area. Officials issued 79% of boil water advisories in 2015 for drinking water systems serving 500 people or fewer.

Improving Aboriginal water management capacity

In an effort to address longstanding water quality issues faced by Aboriginal peoples, the Canadian federal government established the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP) in 2008. The initial funding of $330 million supported treatment facility construction and renovation, facility operation and maintenance, operator training and related public health activities on reserve. The program was extended and supplied with another $330 million in 2010, with a particular focus on improvements to drinking water in First Nations communities.

The key program components of FNWWAP include investments in infrastructure and maintenance, training, water quality monitoring, and water-related public health activities on First Nations reserves. An evaluation of the FNWWAP concluded that First Nations communities have seen improvements in their ability to manage and monitor water and wastewater systems as a result of the program’s support. For example, in 2012, 60% of water system operators and 54% of wastewater system operators had been certified to the level of their system – an increase of 9% and 12%, respectively.  Despite increases in certification, and at appropriate levels, the evaluation also found that less than one third of the operators surveyed for the report believed they had sufficient numbers of staff to meet the need in their communities.

However, despite federal funding, the investment of cash has not always resulted in the necessary infrastructure improvements. The Human Rights Watch report says not applying federal regulations to First Nations communities means water systems on reserves and in predominantly Aboriginal communities in rural and remote areas do not meet the standards expected for urban communities, thus setting systems up for failure.

Water operator staffing challenges in First Nations communities

The FNWWAP evaluation also found that First Nations communities faced a number of challenges in their efforts to establish or maintain water quality. Their main capacity barriers included limited numbers of operators, extreme difficulties with recruitment and retention, and significant staff turnover.
Recent research examining working conditions for Aboriginal water and wastewater operators in Ontario and British Columbia found similar and shared frustrations with the lack of funding for operations and maintenance. Operators in the study also cited the lack of support from their band councils as an ongoing challenge.

One solution is available through the nationally-funded Circuit Rider Training Program. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada invests over more than $10 million per year to provide better water and wastewater services to First Nations communities by providing trained operators who help them to reduce and prevent risks and to ensure safe drinking water.

The CRTP brings Circuit Rider Trainers (CRTs) to First Nation communities where they work one on one with existing staff to provide competency-based tailored training, hands-on support, and other resources as appropriate so that operators can manage all aspects of the community’s water and wastewater systems. The trainers are operators with experience in different water and wastewater plants. In Manitoba, for example, there are seven trainers serving 64 First Nations communities.
Water treatment topics include: disinfection, water analysis, emergency response planning, leak detection surveying, hydrant and valve maintenance, distribution system flushing, maintenance management plans, and operator certification assistance. Wastewater collection topics include: wastewater analysis, plant operation & maintenance management, collection system operation and maintenance, operator certification assistance. Both water and wastewater operators also receive training in process optimization and record keeping.

Innovation leads to hope

The Aboriginal Water and Wastewater Association of Ontario trains and certifies Aboriginal water and wastewater treatment operators. Started in the late 1980s, the AWWAO formally incorporated in 2011 so it could better serve its communities through partnerships with federal, provincial and municipal structures. The organization does this through promotion, education, training, professional engagement, certification, testing and effective management planning.

Saskatchewan offers training to First Nations operators through SaskWater. In 2014, the agency trained 70 operators in 29 Aboriginal communities. As capacity increases, First Nations communities are assuming responsibility for training and operation directly. SaskWater also provides emergency support and ongoing promotion of best practices.

However, a new program may offer hope to First Nations communities and may lead to a reduction in water advisories and an increase in water quality improvements. The Northern Chiefs Council offers a training program that turns high school graduates into plant operators. The program offers support to trainees using a high-tech monitoring system which sends data to certified operators, who will help trainee technicians in remote communities solve their issues over the phone. While infrastructure needs to be built up, the program does allow water management expertise to be developed on site, leading to staff certification. The program has already allowed three northern communities to remove their boil water advisories and offered work to residents.

Environmental risks affecting water in the North
Operational issues aside, Aboriginal communities in Canada also face environmental risks to water quality. The James Bay Cree, as just one example, have highlighted long-term issues with increased amounts of methyl mercury in water systems used for drinking, hunting and fishing. In British Columbia, Aboriginal groups have also been expressing their concerns for safety and water quality in areas affected by the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Both Canadian and American federal governments have committed to investing in water infrastructure supports, however some Aboriginal groups feel that little or no consultation has taken place. Recently the Aboriginal government in Nunatsiavut, Labrador commissioned a study assessing the impact that flooding will have on water systems in the North, particularly with the higher-than-anticipated levels of methyl mercury. The local energy company, Nalcor, appears to be resisting recommended measures to mitigate the risk before flooding happens.

Finding solutions together
The FluksAqua Online Q&A forums are one way for fellow operators located in remote areas to keep up with emerging processes and technologies, or simply to seek support from other experienced operators in helping them resolve operational issues and avoid contamination issues. If you know about practical initiatives to help operators in remote communities, share them with us! Our online community is here to engage and support information sharing for the primary benefit of the urban water facilities user community. Our members represent organizations and communities that contribute key indicators to measure and compare the performance of networks globally.