University of Victoria leading a quest to address one of the top five global threats
Most Canadians don’t think twice about water – it’s there when they turn on the tap or flush the toilet. But for many communities across the country, access to the clean water they need to survive and maintain their culture is a daily challenge.
It’s not a uniquely Canadian problem, and it’s not new. Pollution from industry, agriculture and resource extraction has degraded water sources since the Industrial Revolution. Climate change is making it worse.
With so many communities facing water crises, researchers in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Victoria (UVic) in British Columbia are adopting a multidisciplinary approach to find solutions for what the World Economic Forum ranks as one of the top five global threats.
A leader in climate, environmental change and sustainability research aligning with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, UVic prides itself on having the “greenest” civil engineering department in Canada. Scholars respond to global environmental challenges with practical design solutions such as managing, designing, constructing and maintaining the built and natural environments, using technologies and techniques that provide services to society while working within the carrying capacity of local ecosystems and the planet.
UVic researchers strive to achieve a key aspect of this mission – sustainable water on both a local and global scale – with the support of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and a common goal: sustainable and meaningful solutions supporting ecological and human health.
They are motivated in part by the knowledge that up to six million Indigenous and non-urban people in Canada face disproportionate exposure to contaminated water, and an estimated four billion people globally face water shortages.
Heather Buckley, who describes herself as a “green chemist and engineering professor,” says she believes greener technologies are essential to improving human and environmental health.
She leads a research team developing green chemistry solutions to biological and chemical contamination in drinking water and environmental contexts. This ranges from sensors that easily detect trace contaminants to light-activated antimicrobials that prevent biological fouling of engineered marine and clinical surfaces.
“Having the tools for better environmental monitoring and adopting safe ways of cleaning contaminated surfaces empowers communities and industries to become environmental stewards, which in turn leads to better public health outcomes,” says Dr. Buckley.
Her departmental colleague, Tom Gleeson, a UVic President’s Chair, works with communities, governments and organizations to secure water resources in Canada and globally.
“Groundwater is a crucial, life-sustaining resource and the primary drinking source for over one million people in British Columbia alone,” he says. “Unfortunately, the sustainability of groundwater resources is threatened by overuse or contamination in many areas.”
Dr. Caetano Dorea
Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Victoria
Dr. Gleeson’s special focus on groundwater is both global – shaping a United Nations report on the state of global groundwater – and local; he is supporting the co-governance of water by Cowichan Tribes First Nation on Vancouver Island, including citizens’ participation to improve water management.
People in the Cowichan Valley near the City of Duncan depend on the Koksilah River for their water and salmon, but decades of decreasing summer flows are reducing available water and threatening salmon runs.
“The Koksilah is a threatened river because of low flows in summer driven by a range of factors, including climate change, irrigation and, possibly, logging,” says Dr. Gleeson. “It’s a great example of the challenge we face in water management.”
Working through UVic’s Community Water Innovation Lab, Kristian Dubrawski, Canada Research Chair in Water Sustainability for Indigenous and Rural Communities, focuses his research on the space where water quality and technology intersect with community and ecology. It includes the investigation of how communities can strengthen links between human and natural water systems – and it’s important because 90 per cent of the world’s wastewater is discharged untreated, causing pollution and disease.
That needs to change, says Dr. Dubrawski, but addressing water needs is more than just finding a solution and imposing it.
“We need to co-develop the right tools, so the communities feel empowered to deal with the problem,” he says. “We also need to recognize that some of the water challenges are the result of injustice, like when a First Nation is forced to close their shellfish beach because of polluted industrial run-off.”
He says it’s not uncommon for communities that notice pollution in their water sources to lack the scientific knowledge and resources to take any action, which is where UVic researchers can offer help.
Caetano Dorea designs and studies novel, effective and sustainable on-site sanitation systems to protect human health and the environment for the most vulnerable communities in Canada and elsewhere. He points out that about 15 per cent of Canadians don’t have access to safely managed sanitation services, and nine per cent of wastewater systems in First Nations communities rely on on-site septic systems.
“Adequate sanitation is considered a basic human right, but even in high-income countries such as Canada, many rural and remote communities lack adequate wastewater management systems,” says Dr. Dorea, adding that the global burden of this deficit can be measured by the annual loss of over 320 million working days, 272 million school days and $7-billion in health-care costs.
The work of the sustainable water group is energized by research from hydrologist Tara Troy, who studies the impact of climate and humans on water resources. It is also underpinned by UVic president Kevin Hall’s special interest in water. As a civil engineer, his deep commitment to environmental sustainability is evidenced by work on water crisis solutions, including delivering low-cost, point-of-use water-treatment technologies to marginalized urban communities across southeast Asia.
From researchers to the president, UVic academics are thinking more than twice about water, and they’re primed and poised to make an impact on water safety and supply for communities in Canada and around the world.
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