Blog: Sustainable Solutions for First Nations Water Needs

Posted on Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Government of Canada has pledged to end boil water advisories within First Nations reserves within 5 years.  Currently 93 different communities are operating under 133 different advisories.  Advisories are administrative instruments intended to bridge temporary conditions such as equipment malfunction, excessive agricultural runoff or other water quality excursions.  As boil water advisories become stale, the risk of illness due to inattentive water consumption increases dramatically. 

 Action to eliminate the advisories will require the efficient and timely deployment of capital for repair or replacement of systems servicing FN communities across a broad landscape.  Systems are often small and remote: further challenging designer, builder and operators to maintain a high level of service and reliability.  

Through our work with FN communities within Treaty 7 and Treaty 8, we have had the opportunity better understand the challenges that our neighbours have faced.  We have seen that historical investments in FN water infrastructure have met with mixed results. Early gains in drinking water or effluent quality have been difficult to maintain in the absence of the funds and expertise required to anticipate deterioration and troubleshoot problems. Through our work, we have identified several keys to optimizing the upcoming investment by Government of Canada while assuring long term performance of these new investments.

First and foremost, it is important to accelerate execution of projects.  There are thousands of small systems in existence around the world that are coping with a vast spectrum of water quality issues including runoff turbidity, pathogens, odour and taste.  The key is to shift the emphasis from assessment to action by reducing the percentage of funds spend on administration/study and increasing the percentage spent on design/fabrication.  This can be accomplished by relying more on performance-based contracts with fixed targets for budget, schedule and water quality rather than traditional project execution models.

Secondly, modular technology can be utilized to reduce site construction costs and allow for reinvestment of the savings towards better technology.  The remoteness of many FN communities significantly drives up the cost of site construction and the carbon footprint associated with site-built installations.  Modularization can reduce site construction costs up to 80% - again these funds can be used to improve environmental performance and water quality.

Thirdly, the transfer of knowledge and expertise to the host FN community needs to being during facility design, not after handover.  The lessons-learned during facility design, construction, commissioning and startup are the most important in understanding the robustness and capabilities of a system.

Fourthly, the Internet of Things creates a new opportunity to provide 24-7 connectivity between the equipment, the operator , the owner and the expert resources that can help anticipate, troubleshoot and respond to issues as they arise.  Sensing equipment installed in modular systems with internet/satellite connectivity facilitate the access to expert advice needed to guide operators through understanding their system and responding to problems.

Finally, co-investment by the technology provider, host FN community, government and 3rd party capital in the assets provides a unique opportunity to leverage the Government's investment and ensure the commitment of all parties towards a sustainable solution.  The combination of an appropriate capital structure and informed governance can dramatically reduce the life-cycle cost of the investment and avoid premature deterioration of asset integrity and system performance.