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From IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub

University of Manitoba researchers are working with First Nations on projects designed to increase access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. The University was recently named as Canada’s first UN academic impact hub for a Sustainable Development Goal – Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation. This article shares findings from our research that shed light on ways to accelerate the achievement of SDG 6.

International observers have expressed surprise that a wealthy country such as Canada has not fulfilled its international obligation to provide its own residents with such a basic human right as clean drinking water and sanitation. The vast majority of Canadians take these services for granted, but thousands of homes in First Nation communities have no safe way to dispose of sewage and no running water. Thousands more homes have running water that is unsafe to drink without boiling it first. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making some progress on his commitment to eliminate drinking water contamination in First Nation communities, but our researchers are also looking at innovative ways to expedite change.

Understanding that only multifaceted solutions will be effective, University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby pulled together in 2011 a Water Rights Research Consortium that included First Nation organizations, scientists, social scientists and health researchers. With funding from all three of Canada’s main research funding agencies, two projects were launched:

  • The H2O research training programme for graduate and undergraduate science and engineering students who partnered with individual First Nations to investigate specific water and wastewater challenges in their communities; and
  • Research on the most effective ways to advocate for clean drinking water and safe wastewater disposal, led by Elders and legal, economics and psychology scholars.

Pine Creek First Nation environmentalist Audrey Brass appreciates her community’s partnership with the H2O research training programme led by the University of Manitoba’s Professor Annemieke Farenhorst, arguing that, “The more evidence you have, the more power you have to make change.” The programme helped build local research capacity as adults and youth helped gather water samples in the field and interpret results.

Through these two projects, the Water Rights Research Consortium has found that:

  • Water stored in aging concrete underground cisterns is often contaminated with bacteria, some of which carry antibiotic-resistance genes;
  • Crafting culturally grounded advocacy messages requires understanding Indigenous values. Anishinaabe law teaches that water has a spirit, we do not own water, water is life, water can heal, women are responsible for water, we must respect the water, water can suffer and water needs a voice;
  • First Nation residents with proper sanitation are about 40% more likely to report that they are in good health than those without;
  • In three First Nation communities surveyed, 18-83% of people report running out of water at home;
  • Campaign messages that frame drinking water as a human right and emphasize the suffering of children may help increase public support for government action;
  • Providing practical suggestions and challenging stereotypes are among potential ways to overcome barriers preventing non-Indigenous people from taking action; and
  • Advocacy can involve public education on legal obligations and, in some cases, legal action. Legal strategies that rely on international law and section 36 of the Canadian constitution are the most promising in the Canadian context.

Our research is still under way. We are:

  • Investigating whether fungus and salt-tolerant plants such as cattails can help remove contaminants from water seeping out of landfills before it contaminates drinking water sources;
  • Testing in-home water filtration systems in communities without effective distribution of clean water; and
  • Training community members to monitor their own source water.

In addition, plans are under way at the University of Manitoba to develop an online tool to help science and engineering students foster research relationships with First Nation communities. Indigenous university students who have participated in the research are better able to help their communities, while non-Indigenous students are graduating more competent at working across cultures. One H2O student said, “The programme highlighted the reality of First Nations reserves and helps me to inform people in Winnipeg and elsewhere who may be uninformed.”

The University of Manitoba has identified sustainable water management systems as one of the main research themes it will pursue over the coming years. Researchers from a range of disciplines at the University study watershed management and flooding, which impact source water and are therefore also key to achieving SDG 6.

In 2015, 29% of the global population lacked safely managed drinking water supplies, and 61% were without safely managed sanitation services. Becoming an academic impact hub increases the potential for the University of Manitoba to collaborate internationally on research that incorporates Indigenous knowledge into innovative solutions for improving access to water and sanitation around the globe.

Helen Fallding manages the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.