The First Nations Water Crisis in Canada and How Bio-filtration Can be Used to Resolve It

The fact that there is a potable water crisis in some parts of Canada may come as a surprise to many people, given that it is a country renowned for its seemingly endless amounts of fresh water resources. However, the fact is that for over 5 million Canadians, especially those living in rural or First Nations communities, regular access to safe water supplies is not always certain. Indeed, despite the millions of dollars spent by First Nations communities, provincial governments and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) over the years, just last fall there were over 150 drinking water advisories in effect across the nation. Thus, arises the question, what solutions are being offered to remediate the crisis?

Existing efforts

In 2016, an Indigenous Drinking Water Projects Office was officially established by the Ontario provincial government, with the assistance of the federal government, to provide local communities with support. Assistance can come in the form of anything from carrying out technical assessments to providing access to training and certifications. As such, communities working with the Office can then participate more fully and make better informed decisions when it comes to proposing solutions to their potable water issues.

The Walkerton Clean Water Centre is another agency of the Ontario provincial government which provides assistance to communities in need of assistance and training. They work especially with communities such as many First Nations groups, who depend on smaller drinking water systems.

With $1.8-billion allocated by the federal government under a vow to eradicate boil-water advisories across First Nations communities by 2021, it is possible that many communities will have steady access to potable water for the first time in many years. That said, many solutions have been offered over the years and oftentimes, the results have been more than disappointing. Many water treatment plants have failed to live up to their expectations, requiring premature repairs or even total replacements after only a few short years – and in some cases, mere days. It is therefore no surprise that some groups have turned away from conventional treatments, desperate to try something new.

Canada’s Safe Drinking Water Foundation is an independent charitable organization started in 1998, focusing on developing partnerships with Canada’s rural communities. One of their main concerns is addressing the common use of marginal technologies that barely solve local water issues. As such, their principal goal is to educate local communities. By providing hands-on education regarding water safety and treatment options, communities are better able to make informed, scientifically-backed decisions when choosing a water treatment system to work with.

Water treatment methods

There are many existing water treatment methods, some of them but a few years old, while others have been in place for over a century. These include conventional membrane systems, slow-sand filtration and bio-filtration.

Slow-sand filtration

Slow-sand filtration was developed over more than a century ago, in which freshwater containing pathogens slowly passes through sand, containing biological organisms. The biological organisms attach to the sand’s surface, creating what is known as a biofilm. The biofilm eats away pathogens, resulting in filtered water, so long as the biofilm does not contaminate the filtered water. This system is still commonly used in many places in the world, including in London, and has been successfully used in six First Nations communities, given that it is typically cost-effective compared to other solutions.

Membrane filtration

Membraned filtration is another common solution to water filtration woes, which generally operates via reverse osmosis (RO). This technology was first implemented to remove salt from seawater, but it was then adapted by water treatment companies to tackle contaminants in fresh water. In conventional membrane filtration, water enters a pre-filter which takes care of physically trapping larger contaminants. It is then pressurized and pushed through a RO membrane to filter out further contaminants, before undergoing a last cleanup.

That said, conventional reverse osmosis water treatment systems have proven to be less than ideal in some situations, especially when chemical disinfectants are used to deal with contaminants. For instance, in the case of the Snake River First Nation community, the source water was too acidic for the membranes to handle – leading to costly repairs and a premature expiry date on the membranes.


Bio-filtration is basically the process by which naturally occurring organisms eat away other organic pathogens. It is an ecologically-friendly process, as fungi and other bacteria ensure that there are no pollutants that result from this process. Bio-filtration that has been implemented across many fields, particularly in agriculture, but has recently been successfully adapted for use in water treatment plants.

 One particular example of this is the Sapphire Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane (SIBROM) industrial water filtration system. Invented by Dr. Hans Petersen after 21 months of research funded by INAC, the system consists of a mixture of bio-filtration and RO membrane filtration technologies. Instead of using chemicals to treat water contaminants, organisms that are found in biofilm eat away at pathogens prior to RO filtration.

SIBROM in Canada

Because SIBROM makes use of both bio-filtration and RO technologies, it can be considered the best of two worlds. Its successful implementation is due to the fact that it is cost-effective, relatively low-maintenance, and ecologically friendly. For instance, one conventional industrial water filtration system cost $15,000 a month in chemicals alone. The same community using a bio-filtration system brought their chemical costs down to about $100 a month. 16 SIBROM plants have been implemented in First Nations communities across Canada since the technology’s advent.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to move away from conventional standards, especially given how new the technology is compared to other filtration systems. Without a long history and a manual of practice behind it, getting communities to adopt SIBROM can be difficult. That said, many researchers have been working at making bio-filtration technologies more generally accessible and understandable, while groups such as the Safe Drinking Water Foundation are diligent in working with communities in order to educate them in water safety matters.

While the promised additional funding from the federal government will be useful in bringing down the number of water advisories over the next five years, the question of sustainability is another matter altogether. With new water treatment technologies being explored every day, it is crucial for local communities and governmental organizations to stay informed and up to date if they wish to make appropriate decisions geared towards long-term water safety and environmental protection.

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