Before Dr. Madjid Mohseni, drinking water advisories have been common in remote and Indigenous communities in Canada for decades. Reasons range from water line breaks, to equipment failure, to poor filtration or disinfection. Sometimes emergency repairs are needed, or there are too few staff to support a plant’s operation.
In November 2015, there were more than 100 long-term drinking water advisories (in place for more than a year) in effect in Indigenous communities across Canada. By July 2019, there were 58 remaining.
Part of that progress, especially in British Columbia, is thanks to Dr. Madjid Mohseni, a University of British Columbia (UBC) engineering professor, working together with Indigenous communities. Madjid is the founder of and driving force behind RES’EAU-WaterNET, a research initiative that brings together water technology engineers, chemists, economists, science policy experts and industry partners to work with small, remote and Indigenous communities to develop customized water-treatment solutions.
Originally from Iran, Dr. Madjid Mohseni came to Canada as an international student in the 1990s, eventually earning his Ph.D. and joining UBC as faculty. Around 2005, the problem of persistent drinking water issues in remote communities appeared on his radar, and he began to brainstorm possible solutions. By 2008, his efforts had led to a funding application with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
“Dr. Mohseni is a leader in integrating Truth and Reconciliation efforts into engineering education. He makes a lot of effort to learn about [First Nations] culture. He shows respect and listens to their concerns”.
Danny Higashitani, senior engineer, Indigenous Services Canada
RES’EAU was launched in 2009 as a public-private partnership. Its initial funding was $14 million, with 70% coming from NSERC and the balance from organizations. Madjid says that getting the program up and running required commitment, hard work, networking and brainstorming. In all, it took 3 years to get everyone on board.
Rather than imposing a “one size fits all” solution everywhere, RES’EAU focuses on what it calls the Community Circle Model. This brings local residents and experts together to choose solutions that reflect individual communities’ needs, resources and capacities.
An example is the Nickeyeah Community of the Lytton First Nation within the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. The community was under a drinking water advisory for years until a permanent water treatment plant was installed in 2016 with support from RES’EAU. The plant was fabricated off-site and delivered by truck for less than half the cost quoted by other suppliers.
Dr. Madjid Mohseni encourages his graduate students to think about incorporating reconciliation efforts into projects. Over the last decade, more than 180 engineering students, from undergraduate to doctorate, have participated in RES’EAU projects.
Irfan Gehlen, a senior specialist in water supply and treatment with Kerr Wood Leidal Engineering, a RES’EAU partner, says working with RES’EAU has a huge impact on students. “Acquiring hands-on experience with Indigenous communities helps them develop greater cultural awareness and competencies”, he says. These are essential for engineers working on natural resource projects.
For his part, Dr. Madjid Mohseni appreciates the diverse perspectives his work exposes him to. “I really enjoy working with First Nations people – they are fantastic and so welcoming”, he says. “I learn a lot about the value of life, seeing things from their perspective”.
From original: Engineering cleaner water in remote communities.