Canadian culture is steeped in water. Eight of the world’s 20 largest fresh water lakes lie within our borders, as do nearly 50 rivers that each stretch 600 kilometres or more – to say nothing of our 200,000 kilometres of coastline.
Although less than 1% of all the Earth’s water is accessible and appropriate for human consumption, we’ve nonetheless grown accustomed to the idea that clean drinking water is only as far away as the nearest tap.
That is, unless you live in a small, rural or First Nations community (SRC), a shocking number of which struggle to provide drinkable water on a regular basis.
Enter RES’EAU WaterNET, Canada’s first and only multidisciplinary research network devoted exclusively to developing innovative, affordable technologies for providing clean drinking water to SRCs. Funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in partnership with UBC, RES’EAU unites the efforts of 14 senior researchers at seven universities across Canada, along with a broad network of collaborators in government and industry.
Several UBC investigators bring their unique expertise to the RES’EAU team, including Dr. David Wilkinson, CHBE Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in clean energy and fuel cells, Dr. Elod Gyenge, a CHBE Associate Professor and expert in electrochemical power sources, and Dr. Madjid Mohseni, CHBE Professor of chemical engineering and RES’EAU’s Scientific Director. Dr. Pierre Bérubé of UBC’s Department of Civil Engineering and Dr. Rehan Sadiq, a civil engineer and Associate Professor at UBC Okanagan, also lead network research projects. Almost 90 highly qualified personnel – from undergrads to post-doctoral fellows – have also been involved in the RES’EAU program, gaining unique experience by working closely with both research teams and the communities who stand to gain from their efforts.
Together, their goal is to accelerate the development and implementation of water purification technologies and processes that overcome the unique cultural, political, economic and technical obstacles SRCs face.
The stakes are high.
“Most Canadians would be alarmed at how pervasive contaminated drinking water is among SRCs,” says Dr. Mohseni. “When it makes headlines, such as when seven people died in Walkerton, ON in 2000 from E.coli contamination, people take notice. But the reality is that hundreds of communities and thousands of Canadians live with potentially unsafe water every day, in conditions that sometimes mirror those in the developing world. It’s an ongoing public health catastrophe, and one which urgently requires a collective effort to address.”
Most research and development in water purification is aimed at larger municipalities that can support costly infrastructure while tapping into larger pools of skilled operators, Dr. Mohseni adds. Not so for the majority of SRCs, which often lack the funds to update and operate new technologies.
From lab bench to the local tap, RES’EAU engages water technology engineers, scientists, economists, science policy experts and community end-users in a process that rethinks and refines alternative models for innovation to produce robust and affordable solutions for SRCs. The network’s research program includes 15 projects conducted under three broad themes: Characterizing Source Water Quality, Development of Innovative Treatment Solutions, and Diffusion of Innovative Solutions.
“Our unique approach puts the needs of Canada’s small communities first,” Dr. Mohseni concludes. “Being able to tap into the expertise and cutting-edge technologies at UBC/CHBE has allowed us to make significant progress towards our goal of providing safe drinking water to all Canadians.”
Learn more about RES’EAU WaterNET.
Reprinted with permission from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, The Exchanger, Spring 2012