November 26, 2018
Access to safe drinking water was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly as an essential human right in 2010. Nonetheless, at least 66 First Nations communities across Canada remain without safe drinking water, a situation that has lasted, in some cases, for as long as two decades.
Critically, we recognize that procurement issues are only a part of the reason why First Nations have inadequate access to safe drinking water. We also recognize that this inadequate access is only one symptom of the many structural inequities that First Nations communities confront on a daily basis. We believe that by sharing the innovations described below, our readers will gain a better understanding of the complex nature of this challenge, as well as a greater appreciation for the innovative power that is inherent within First Nations communities. We are under no illusions, however, that the deeper challenges faced by these communities can be resolved simply through technical fixes or that such solutions diminish the obligation for Canadian governments to better fulfill their wider responsibilities to First Nations.
An unacceptable situation
Access to safe drinking water is a health, safety, and equity issue all too familiar to First Nations communities in Ontario. There are currently 46 water systems in 25 Ontario First Nations communities with active long-term drinking water advisories (LTDWAs – advisories that have been in place for more than a year), 39 of which have lasted longer than five years. Ontario faces a disproportionate number of such advisories: while only 139 of 634 First Nations communities are located in Ontario, these communities currently account for nearly 70 percent of the LTDWAs recognized by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC).
The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to remedy this problem, and has committed to eliminating all LTDWAs by March 2021. To fulfill this responsibility, the 2016 and 2018 federal budgets allocated a combined $1.972 billion for water and wastewater projects in First Nations communities. As of May 2018, ISC’s Ontario Region invested $53.8 million for 88 water and wastewater projects in 62 communities. ISC reports that this investment helped eliminate 16 advisories in six communities. But given that the mid-point of the government’s timeline has already passed, the possibility that the March 2021 target will be missed is growing.
“The traditional approach to eliminating long-term drinking water advisories has been neither cost-effective nor timely in delivering long-awaited solutions”
Lifting advisories – why is it taking so long?
Permanently lifting an LTDWA requires overcoming two significant obstacles. First, projects designed to enable the lifting of LTDWAs often run into delays, thus prolonging unsafe conditions and increasing costs. Second, a lack of local residents trained in water facility management and maintenance often results in premature infrastructure degradation.
One factor that often contributes to delays is the time required for construction. A new water treatment plant for a remote First Nations community takes an average of three to four years to complete. Why so long? Many contributing factors are essentially unavoidable, including the remoteness of many communities and the associated higher transportation costs, shorter construction seasons due to northern climates, and the relatively small market of qualified contractors willing to work in remote regions.
A second and more avoidable source of delay is the federal government’s rigid procurement process. For instance, the status quo approach is slower than necessary because it involves two separate competitive bidding processes, one for the project design and the other for construction. Each bidding round and proposal assessment adds weeks or months to the project timeline. While this challenge is not unique to First Nations projects, the impact of delays is exacerbated by the unavoidable challenges mentioned earlier and their tendency to create high mitigation costs. This additional strain on the budget can jeopardize the project’s long-term success because project managers may cut costs elsewhere, including funding for operator training.
Recognizing this problem, ISC has promoted an expedited “design-build” procurement option. This approach has been shown to increase the speed at which a project is completed by reducing the procurement process to a single bidding round.
A third source of delay is the major challenge of securing adequate funding. First Nations communities are typically unable to access the financial resources available to municipalities due to insufficient assets or unsteady streams of income. Because of this, First Nations are reliant on federal funding. This is problematic because funds tend to be released slowly and subject to rigid requirements, disregarding the flexibility needed for these complex infrastructure projects.
Moreover, federal funds typically only cover construction costs, leaving long-term needs such as operator training and maintenance unfunded. Without a trained operator, communities are dependent on third parties to monitor their water and maintain their facility, or they may postpone maintenance altogether. This leads to facilities wearing down prematurely and the reinstatement of drinking water advisories.
Overall, current approaches to lifting LTDWAs have tended to weaken the capacity of First Nations to manage their own infrastructure by reinforcing dependence on the federal government for funding and private companies for construction and maintenance. Even the ISC’s expedited “design-build” solution does nothing to help improve community capacity and can even reinforce dependency.
This dependency is neither inevitable nor unavoidable. On the contrary, two recent alternative approaches have produced successful models for lifting LTDWAs by empowering First Nations.
Alternative solutions: Strategic partnerships and capacity-building hubs
No single solution will suit all First Nations communities, so customizable approaches are ideal. Strategic partnerships and regional capacity-building hubs are examples of two such approaches.
The strategic partnership option is still rare and used mostly in Western Canada. RES’EAU-WaterNET is an NSERC-funded strategic network focused on building small water systems in rural or remote communities that capitalizes on partnerships between universities and water facility manufacturers.
In one case, RES’EAU used a mobile water treatment plant to test various treatment methods on-site in Nickeyeah, one of 56 reserves along the Fraser River in British Columbia that make up Lytton First Nation. The water analysis and consultation with the Lytton water operators led to the selection of a small, custom-built water treatment plant that fits inside a modified 20-foot shipping container.
The plant was designed by University of British Columbia engineers, built by water facility manufacturer BI Pure Water, and then shipped to Nickeyeah for installation. RES’EAU experts ensured that Lytton First Nation operators were thoroughly trained to safeguard the longevity of the new facility.
This process took three years to complete, and thus does not represent a significant timeline reduction. However, it cost less than $500,000, significantly less than the original $1.3 million estimate for a traditional water treatment plant.
Not all LTDWAs require a new water facility; instead, some communities face a human capital challenge. The absence or under-qualification of water facility operators prevents some First Nations communities from properly monitoring their drinking water for dangerous contaminants and pressure levels, or from proactively identifying and addressing infrastructure wear and tear.
The regional hub model is an innovative solution to this problem, and is currently most used in Eastern Canada and particularly in Ontario. One example is the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) Safe Water Project, a First Nation-led initiative providing operator training, remote water monitoring and technical advice.
By creating a regional economy of scale through the cooperation of multiple nearby communities, the Safe Water Project was able to install leading edge remote monitoring systems in each community’s water facility, split transportation costs and share valuable human resources. The project provided 14 operators with advanced training at the Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence in Dryden. Within six months of the project starting in 2015, three of the five original partnering communities lifted their advisories and effectively eliminated dependence on third parties. Due to this success, the KO Safe Water Project received an additional $4 million investment in 2016, which extended its services to 14 additional communities.
The regional hub approach has many benefits. First, training operators provides community members access to a sustainable career path, thereby improving economic outcomes in the community. Second, skilled operators provide long-term maintenance for water facilities and extend facility life cycles. Third, regional hubs could secure larger blocks of funding through tribal councils, effectively streamlining the flow and control of funds from the federal government towards First Nations at a faster pace. Ultimately, First Nations communities will gain the capacity and management skills to oversee projects and maintain infrastructure in an efficient and sustainable manner.
A path to ending long-term drinking water advisories
LTDWAs would not be tolerated in non-Indigenous communities. The traditional approach to eliminating LTDWAs, particularly the government’s procurement process, has been neither cost-effective nor timely in delivering long-awaited solutions.
Strategic partnerships and regional hubs differ from traditional procurement in two important ways. First, these approaches are tailored to the specific needs of First Nations communities. Second, they empower First Nations to lead the problem-solving and capacity-building processes.
Customizing programs and empowering communities can produce greater efficiency and cost-savings. Through a strategic partnership model, Lytton First Nation received an effective solution that cost significantly less than a traditional water treatment plant. The KO Safe Water Project sped up the process of lifting water advisories by improving local capacity and human capital through regional collaboration.
Naturally, procurement issues are only one piece of a larger puzzle and focusing on procurement is not to suggest that there should be less attention placed on wider issues surrounding the relationship between the federal government and First Nations. But this discussion of procurement does illuminate some additional steps that can be taken immediately to address these communities’ unacceptable lack of reliable access to safe drinking water.
But in order to ensure that the same mistakes that have marred previous government interactions with First Nations communities are not repeated, it is critical that any attempt to improve this situation takes the lessons of the past seriously. While the federal government has committed to ending all LTDWAs affecting First Nations by March 2021, it is First Nations and not the government and its timelines that should control the approach, solutions, or timeline for lifting LTDWAs.