A Trusted Source
For many, water is a commercial commodity, taken for granted and easily wasted, its value only recognized when the taps run dry or when it becomes unfit to drink. All too often the ‘fixes’ can be abrupt. Build pipelines or pour in chemicals with an attitude equally as efficient: Get it done, right now.
To other and usually older cultures, water runs far deeper; lakes, rivers, rain and cupped within a thirsting hand, water often carries a deeper, spiritual element. Canada is a G7 nation, which makes it all the more disturbing that many of the more than five million Canadians living in small rural communities – including many First Nations – can’t access clean, safe water.
Commercially driven expediency versus millennia of cultural attitudes and concerns; when they collide, remedial projects can easily stall. Meanwhile, the water is still bad.
Bridging the worlds and correcting the problem means developing trust and a common source between industry and these cultures through acquiring authentic, objective, factual knowledge untainted by prejudice, and that’s not easy, notes Dr. Madjid Mohseni of the UBC Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
As the founder of RES’EAU-WaterNET, an organization working to develop innovative water-treatment technologies for small rural communities, First Nations especially, Mohseni believes that winning trust can start with empathy:
“I think it takes time; you need to have patience. It takes multiple visits, it takes sitting down, listening to their concerns, understanding the values and talking to various people, especially Elders. Over time, there is going to be an established trust.”
Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and The Peter Wall Solutions Initiative at UBC, among others, Mohseni and RES’EAU graduate students focused on examining existing water-treatment systems, exploring safer, highly effective and non-chemical alternatives such as short-wavelength UV purification and most importantly, striving to build trust and working relationships with B.C. First Nations.
For example, the water-sampling campaign where community water operators are trained to collect and record the data needed to track water-quality variations over the long term. To get the next generation of First Nations community leaders involved, Mohseni held a one-week summer camp for Aboriginal high-school students from communities all over BC; not just to learn about water treatment but engineering and its career potentials.
In the last year, RES’EAU-WaterNET has been working specifically with five different First Nations in BC (some with multiple reserves). In addition, it has been involved with a number of other non-First Nations within and outside of British Columbia.
Because of their structure and focus on learning, universities have “the luxury” of investing time. Far too often, especially when First Nations are involved, Mohseni believes that schedule-oriented, spreadsheet-driven industry does not: “They don’t have the resources to wait.”
However, he also says there are individuals within companies that have an innate awareness and empathy and with proper training, these people could become highly effective conduits between industry and First Nations. But it will take time to build these qualified human resources.
“Initially things are going to be more difficult,” warns Mohseni, “but as you build the trust of a few communities and an understanding of how to work and collaborate with First Nations and appreciate the differences in cultures – or even from one community to another – that trust will grow.”