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An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure

By Charles Paco


The scope of my research is based on the unsafe drinking water within Canada’s Indigenous communities. I believe that the most effective blog posting I can write is one in which I am able to provide complex insight and thoughtful arguments given how well versed I am on the topic.

Blog Pic With respect to unsafe drinking water within Canada’s Indigenous communities, much attention has been given to water treatment in order to fix water quality after the drinking water has been deemed unsafe.  Lack of source water protection (SWP) within and upstream of Indigenous communities causes, at least in part, unsafe drinking water.  Source water protection is a part of the multi-barrier approach to clean drinking water that protects water sources like rivers, lakes, and wells from contaminants. The major issues noted with respect to source water protection include intuitional barriers, inadequate funding, lack of risk level characterization, and a lack of redundancy in the water supply.

The primary issue leading to inadequate SWP in Indigenous communities can be categorized as “institutional barriers”. In other words, the challenges radiating from the fragmentation of responsibility between the levels of government seems to be in effect with SWP. Along with competing resource interests with the Indigenous community members, another issue with governmental agencies seems to be a sense of complacency after water treatment facilities have been installed: the focus shifts towards fixing an issue rather than preventing it. There seems to be a notion to ignore SWP once treatment facilities have been implemented. With this band-aid approach and lax prevention there is a risk that contaminants introduced to the source water could exceed the operating specifications of the water treatment system.  The concept that treatment trumps prevention acts as a major challenge to safe drinking water in Indigenous communities.

The lack of funding from all governmental levels adds to the challenge in protection of safe drinking water. Indigenous communities are notoriously underfunded with respect to many aspects of their community’s resource management, including safe drinking water.  These financial constraints put on the communities cause the need for a triage approach in the quest for safe drinking water: underfunding requires priority to be given to immediate needs in the drinking water system before the needs of protection are addressed.  Immediate needs such as fixing the broken treatment technology and responding to a contamination take priority over proactive approaches such as SWP.  Further, due to the financial limitations in the communities, there is very rarely adequate capital for SWP once the price of damage control has been paid. This irony of funding going to damage control, although allocating money to prevention could prevent that very damage, acts as another major barrier to source water protection.

An additional barrier to SWP is a lack of ability to comprehensively assess the risk level when a contamination of source water occurs.  Many First Nation communities do not have source water technology that allowed for the characterization of pathogens, making it difficult to assess the risk level during an outbreak. There have been many reported inadequacies within bacteriological monitoring in Indigenous communities’ water systems.  In an article studying 56 of Alberta’s First Nations’ water systems, it was reported that when a risk was posed to drinking water safety, 98% of the source water systems had not been characterized for specific types of bacterial contamination such as Cryptosporidium spp. or Giardia spp (Smith et al.).  Without identifying the bacterial contaminant, it is very challenging to accurately determine the risk level posed to the community without resorting to assumptions.  If there is an inaccurate drinking water risk determination, it is impossible to know the extent of intervention needed, generating an obvious barrier to SDW.

There is not only a lack of detailed source water monitoring in Indigenous communities but also infrequent monitoring.  Health Canada requires that water quality to be sampled for bacteria a minimum of four times per month in a community with 5,000 people or less. However, one bacteriological sample per week to classify an entire source water system would hardly be acceptable in providing a reliable indication of water quality. This Health Canada requirement seems even more illogical for communities that have had previous challenges to drinking water safety due to outbreaks and contamination. The consequences of infrequent sampling are two-fold.  Not only is the community at risk for a disease outbreak in their drinking water, but it also causes a prolonged time period before water supply contamination can be detected.

Source water protection is probably the most challenging aspect when trying to achieve safe drinking water within our Indigenous communities, however it is far from unachievable. The difficulty stems from the fact that the water sources are ecosystems themselves, constantly interacting with thousands of species and being used by humans for other reasons in addition to being a source of drinking water. If we are able to tackle this issue and better protect the source water, it will simplify all other pieces needed to provide safe drinking water. 


  1. Dyck, T., Plummer, R., & Armitage, D. (2015). Examining First Nations ’ approach to protecting water resources using a multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water in Southern Ontario , Canada. Canadian Water Resources Journal / Revue Canadienne Des Ressources Hydriques40(2), 203–222.
  1. Morrison, A., Bradford, L., & Bharadwaj, L. (2015). Quantifiable progress of the First Nations Water Management Strategy, 2001 – 2013: Ready for regulation? Canadian Water Resources Journal / Revue Canadienne Des Ressources Hydriques40(4), 352–372.
  1. Smith, D. W., Guest, R. K., Svrcek, C. P., & Farahbakhsh, K. (2007) health evaluation of drinking water systems for First Nations reserves in Alberta ,17(2006).