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WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF WASTEWATER MANAGEMENT IN REMOTE COMMUNITIES Ken Johnson, M.A.Sc., MCIP, P.Eng. Earth Tech Canada Abstract The development and sustaining of infrastructure in remote communities has always been influenced by a variety of factors. Over the past decade, the complexity of these factors has increased substantially with changes to the available financial resources, the administrative structures, the operational responsibilities, and the regulatory environments. Many of these changes have increased the overall complexity of infrastructure development, and sustainability in remote communities, particularly at the community level. Many communities are finding the demands of these complexities to be well beyond their financial and administrative resources, and as a consequence are placing themselves in very undesirable situations with regard to community funding and regulatory compliance. The challenges associated with wastewater management in remote communities occur in the areas of science, applied science, and social science. The science of wastewater management, particularly northern communities, remains incomplete, and consequently the regulatory frameworks are not realistic. The applied science or "engineering" of wastewater systems in remote communities should follow the key principles of appropriate technology, community context, incremental improvement. The social science associated with wastewater management in remote communities presents a multitude challenges which include, administrative, financial, and human resources. The ecosystems of the remote regions of Canada are unique and fragile, and must be protected. However, to date, the protective measures for these ecosystems have not been developed or implemented based upon the necessary northern science, applied science, and social science information. Introduction On a political scale the remote areas of Canada constitute as much as 45% of Canada's land mass, including the regions of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik (northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (northern Labradour) are included (see Figure 1). By contrast this vast region is populated by a mere 100,000 people occupying 90 communities. Which is an average Figure 1. Remote areas of Canada


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

Figure 2. Defining remote areas by temperature – arctic region is defined by 10C isotherm. population of 1100 per community. In fact the communities of Whitehorse (24,000), Yellowknife (19,000) and Iqaluit (7,000) account for about half of the population making the average population for realistically less than 600 people per community. The remote areas of Canada, and the world are most often defined by temperature, as well as geography. In a North American context, all of Canada, with the exception of the west coast, is considered very cold, and in fact, the United States considers the cold region to be the northern portion of the lower 48 states, rather than the state of Alaska (see Figure 2). The subarctic and arctic regions of Canada are considered to be beyond "very cold". The scientific approach defines the Arctic as the area where average temperature for the warmest month of the year (July) is below 10°C (50°F). This macro scale for remote areas is very different from the micro scale that most remotes communities must function within. The limits of remote communities are often defined by the all weather road system that provides access to facilities such as the airport, the water source or the waste management area (see Figure 3). The interactions between these built infrastructure features of remote communities have positive and negative interactions within themselves, as well as the built features associated with human habitation. The development and sustaining of this infrastructure in remote communities has always been influenced by a variety of technical, financial, administrative, operational and regulatory factors. Over the past 10 years the complexity of these factors has increased substantially with changes to the available financial resources, the administrative structures, the operational responsibilities, and the regulatory environments.


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

Many of these changes have increased the overall complexity of infrastructure development, and sustainability in remote communities, particularly at the community level. Many communities are finding the demands of these complexities to be well beyond their financial and administrative resources, and as a consequence are placing themselves in very undesirable situations with regard to community funding and regulatory compliance.

Figure 3. The opportunities and constraints of remote communities The challenges associated with wastewater management in remote communities occur in the areas of science, applied science, and social science. Science of Wastewater Management The science of modern wastewater treatment systems may be described by a number of unit processes. Each process provides an increasingly higher quality of sewage effluent applying various physical, chemical and biological actions. The unit processes include: • • • • • •

preliminary treatment primary treatment secondary treatment tertiary treatment disinfection residuals management.

Preliminary treatment is a physical process which may be described in the exaggerated, but very simple terms of coarse screening of the sewage influent to remove “two by fours” and


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

“bicycles.” This exaggeration has occasionally been known to be true, but in a generally expected scenario, the preliminary treatment would remove large objects such as rags or toys. Preliminary treatment may also include such processes as communition, flow measuring, and pumping. Primary treatment is a physical process of suspended solids reduction by either sedimentation or fine screening. The sedimentation process uses gravity in a quiescent basin to settle out the solids, or a fine screen to block passage of solids. The solids, either settled or screened, are removed and processed further as part of the residuals management. Secondary treatment is a biological process of enhanced biodegradation of sewage to reduce the biodegradable material within the sewage. The enhanced conditions for biodegradation include increased availability of oxygen, and an increased number of organisms in the treatment basin. The organisms within the basins may be either suspended in the sewage or attached to a fixed media. Tertiary treatment may be either a chemical or biological process of phosphorus removal, ammonia removal, or other enhancement to remove sewage constituents such as solids or biodegradable material. The removal of any remaining pathogenic organisms in a sewage effluent is the primary purpose of disinfection. The common processes used in disinfection are chlorination, ultraviolet radiation, and ozonation. These methods of disinfection operate on the principles of either direct oxidation of the pathogenic organisms (chlorination or ozonation) or mutation of the organism to kill it (ultraviolet radiation). Residuals management involves a biomass reduction and disposal. The first stage in residuals management is to condition or stabilize the biomass by further biodegradation or digestion employing either an aerobic process (air supplied) or an anaerobic process (no air supplied). The second stage is to reduce its volume by removing the liquid from the biomass by either a physical process or a drying process. The stabilized biomass may also be disposed of directly by application to agricultural land, if it is available. Biodegradation, in addition to sedimentation for solids reduction, is a fundamental process for any wastewater treatment process beyond primary treatment, and is an essential process to produce effluent quality appropriate to minimizing public health and environmental impacts. Biodegradation is, however, significantly reduced by cold temperatures, which is an important factor for the performance of lagoon systems. Fortunately, there are bacterial called Psychrophiles, which are cold-loving, and have optimal temperature for growth at about 15°C or lower, and a maximum temperature for growth at about 20°C, and a minimal temperature for growth at 0°C. In the summer months the warmth and sunlight promote the greatest biodegradation activity in lagoon sewage treatment systems, and the systems must be operated accordingly. The general operating scenario for lagoons in cold regions is a 365 day retention followed by an annual decant. During the winter months with the absence heat and sunlight, the primary process for sewage treatment in lagoons is sedimentation. Sedimentation is also influenced by the cold. Settlement


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

velocity depends on the viscosity of the water it; increased water viscosity implies a slowing of the settling process by a factor of 1.75 for water at 1 C compared to water at 20 C. The science of wastewater management (treatment and disposal) in remotes areas, particularly northern regions, remains incomplete, and consequently the regulatory frameworks are not generally realistic. For example, the practice of just wastewater sampling has inherent problems in the north from the seemingly simple process of getting a water sample to "the lab", to the inability to represent a source environment in a laboratory conditions. Applied Science of Wastewater Management Applied science is the process of taking the science and applying it to specific applications. Thinking outside the “box” is necessary for applied science in remote communities in response to the challenges of extreme cold, very limited access, extraordinary costs, and scant resources. These are a few of the “routine” challenges that engineers, as well as suppliers, contractors must face in designing and constructing wastewater treatment facilities for remote areas. The applied science or "engineering" of wastewater systems in remote communities should follow the key principles of appropriate technology, community context, incremental improvement. These principles have been applied inconsistently to projects in remote communities, and consequently a significant number of projects are not meeting the performance expectations of the communities, and the regulatory authorities. Appropriate technology suggests that whatever process is being applied for wastewater treatment must consider the biophysical context of the project site, which includes location, climate, landforms, and possibly the native vegetation. Cold weather and distance are the two major factors in the consideration of appropriate technology. Although engineering designs may take into account measures to prevent wastewater facilities from freezing, it is also prudent to design the means to “thaw” a facility in the event it does freeze; in fact it may be appropriate to state that it is not a matter of if the facility freezes, but when it freezes. Distance is the second factor influencing appropriate technology. Remote communities, by definition, are located at a great distance from what would be considered the “normal” amenities available to a community. Consequently, the resources available for routine operation, and maintenance may not be available at the facility site, and may be not be available for days or more,and may cost extraordinary amounts of money to mobilize. Appropriate technology for wastewater treatment in remote locations may in fact make use of the extensive cold and limited warmth. One particular application is the concentration of sewage biosolids through the freeze-thaw process, and subsequent composting through the limited summer months. This process is just beginning to be applied in the community of Iqaluit, Nunavut.


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

The community context of a wastewater treatment process has some overlap with the biophysical context of “appropriate technology”, but it is specific to the built environment of a community. A remote community of 100 people has a very different “community” in comparison to a remote community of 500 people. One would expect that the smaller community would have significantly less human resources for the project implementation as well as the operation and maintenance of any wastewater facility. The smaller community would also have less resources for the construction of a wastewater facility. Incremental improvement to wastewater treatment is simply a remote context of the phrase that “Rome was not built in a day”. Project planning is an inherent part of any facility implementation, and in a remote context it is has been recognized that at least a 5 year cycle from planning through to project completion is needed. Year one of the cycle occupies consultation with the community. Many remote communities are aboriginal and consequently may a different cultural perspective on wastewater treatment. Efforts to consult and education communities on the benefits to wastewater treatment are sometimes difficult, but the return on this benefit is significant. Year two of the cycle occupies the technical activity of “engineering” the facility along with continuing community consultation. Years three and four occupy construction, which has a limited window of the year because of the material supply, and cold weather. Year five occupies the critical post construction period where the facility becomes operational; this period may in fact “make or break” the project because the community must take ownership of the functional, as well as the physical attributes of the project. The other benefits of incremental improvements apply to the financial planning and community employment. A multi-year implemental allows the community to reduce the cash flow requirements, and provide longer term employment opportunities for the residents of the community. Social Science of Wastewater Management The science and applied science of wastewater treatment are subjects that need more attention, but attention has been given to these important factors over the past several decades. The social science of wastewater management in remote communities has, however, received much less attention. Even the term “social science” may not be a particularly all encompassing phase to apply to “all of the other stuff” associated with wastewater management in remotes communities, but it is a start. The social science associated with wastewater management in remote communities presents a multitude of challenges which include, administrative, financial, and human resources. Any remote community, regardless of size, has the need for a fully funded, fully staffed, and fully trained community administration; however, this is seldom the case. The administrative challenges include multiple levels of government; limited resources; and changing rules. The multiple levels of government in remote communities may include several levels of local representing the aboriginal community, as well as the non-aboriginal community;


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

the territorial government, as well as the land claim by the aboriginal community; and the federal government, which may have several departments working independently to represent their own mandates. In some communities the various levels of government may number 6 or more. The resources available to communities have been a dynamic environment for remote communities over the past several decades. The “devolution” of responsibilities has been ongoing in response to demands for autonomy from some communities, as well as the downsizing of territorial governments. The devolution process has had varying degrees of success. The latest chapter in the Northwest Territories is the so-called “New Deal” which was implemented in 2007, and provides a block funding to all communities. Some communities are “running” with the opportunity and other communities are overwhelmed. The “New Deal” is a good example of the changing rules that remote communities must cope with. In spite of the best conceived and comprehensive “roll out” possible, the “New Deal” will fail in some communities, as this change in the rules, along with other changes associated with many other administrative aspects of the community, are beyond the community’s capacity. The financial challenges include financial management; capital funding; and operation and maintenance funding. Financial management is a challenge for any community, and represent a continuing challenge for many remote communities. Every remote community has a community budget that is proportionately larger than what would normally be expected in a southern geographic context, and the financial management of this budget requires skill and training that many communities do not possess. Funds for capital, and operation and maintenance from the senior governments have diminished significantly over the past decade, and communities are being encourage to be more self sufficient for financial resources. The human resources challenges include hiring staff; training staff; and retaining staff. Human resources may, in fact, be the most challenging aspect of the social science of wastewater management. People represent a very dynamic environment, which has been plagued with a chronic lack of resources for hiring, training, and retaining. An eye opening example of the financial challenges faced by remote communities is presented with the operation and maintenance costs for water and sewer in the remote communities of Whati, in the Northwest Territories, and Grise Fiord in the Nunavut Territory; Grise Fiord is the northern most community in Canada.


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

Figure 4. Location of Whati, NWT, and Grise Fiord, Nunavut

Table 1. Whati, NWT Operation and Maintenance costs Year Water$ Sewer $ Total$ 2001 167,800 71,900 239,700 2002 184,600 79,100 263,700 $580 per capita per year in 2002 or 2.3 cents per litre for water and sewer Water use: 11.5 million litres per year or 70 litres per capita per day Table 2. Grise Fiord, Nunavut Operation and Maintenance costs Year Water $ Sewer $ Total $ 2001 234,391 100,200 334,591 2002 255,959 109,696 365,655 $2,240 per capita per year in 2002 or 6.4 cents per litre for water and sewer Water use - 5,678,500 litres per year or 95 litres per capita per day In comparison the cost of water is 0.12 cents per litre in Edmonton. Conclusions Lagoons have been the sewage treatment process of choice for most remote communities because of the cost effectiveness, simplicity of operation, and abundance of space available to most communities. This situation has been changing over the past decade as regulators have lobbied Water Boards, and pressured communities to improve effluent quality by applying conventional “southern” mechanical technologies. This evolution has exhibited mixed results with “new” mechanical systems operating in the northern communities of Fort Simpson, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit and Pangnirtung. Although it may be said that these systems are generally operating in compliance with the water licence parameters, the communities are faced with a legacy of sustaining these processes with limited


WCWWA 2007 Conference & Trade Show October 23 – 26, 2007 Edmonton, Alberta

financial and human resources. New challenges are emerging for these communities because of the demands for managing the significant biosolids waste stream produced by the waste treatment process. The ecosystems of the remote regions of Canada are unique and fragile, and must be protected, hence the need for wastewater treatment. Public health must also be protected, and wastewater treatment must serve this purpose as well. However, to date, the protective measures for these ecosystems and public health have not been developed or implemented based upon the necessary science, applied science, and social science information.


The Social Context of Wastewater Management in Remote Communities  

The social context of wastewater management in remote communities

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