1.1. First Nations Wastewater Systems
It is widely acknowledged that Indigenous communities experience water insecurity, both in quantity and quality, at a higher rate of incidence than non-indigenous communities across Canada [1
]. Studies have found that insufficient regulatory frameworks [1
], decreased community capacity [7
], infrastructure and resource gaps [8
], federal government-centric authority [6
], and lack of robust consultation [1
] are all components of this persistent problem.
A national assessment of First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure was conducted through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) in 2011 to assess and characterize risks related to operations and water quality treatment performance. This assessment evaluated 532 wastewater systems, serving 418 First Nations communities [8
]. Of these systems, 54% employed piped wastewater collection (centralized), 36% relied on individual septic systems (decentralized), 8% used truck haul, and 2% had no wastewater services at all [8
]. The INAC risk assessment guidelines used in the national study considered effluent quality, design capacity, operations, reporting, and operator risk components. This analysis found there were 72 (14%) high-risk wastewater treatment systems, 272 (51%) moderate-risk systems and 188 (35%) low-risk systems. However, the 2011 report acknowledged concerns with data quality and availability. For example, the report found that 50% of wastewater treatment systems in Atlantic Canada had unknown treatment capacities and only 4% of the systems had maintenance management plans. Further, the risk assessment guidelines used to conduct the analysis did not accurately identify concerns in decentralized wastewater systems or communities that relied on municipal transfer agreements (MTAs), where a partnership is established with an adjacent municipality to provide services to a First Nations community, resulting in numerous systems with poorly characterized risk [8
It is known that small and remote wastewater treatment systems are more likely to experience degraded effluent water quality than larger urban facilities [11
], and this is likely further exacerbated in First Nations communities. Research by Islam and Yuan (2018) found that the major challenges in First Nations wastewater systems included remoteness, lack of resources (availability of equipment and supplies, availability of capital for improvements), high operator turnover rates, age of the system, and ineffective barriers to prevent harmful effluent discharge to receiving watersheds [12
]. These challenges present obstacles to ensuring safe effluent water quality and indicate that there is systemic risk that is not currently addressed in Canada by the federal Wastewater System Effluent Regulations (WSER) requirements. The current state of wastewater management in First Nations communities is marked by a paucity of information and data regarding operation, maintenance, and efficacy of wastewater systems [8
]. This is particularly true for decentralized systems and communities that rely on MTAs. The national assessment of First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure only assessed 5% of individual septic systems and found 47% of this representative sample to have significant operational concerns [8
]. Further, 20% of these systems were found to discharge directly to ground surface. The knowledge gaps and known risks in both centralized and decentralized systems, coupled with the lack of a comprehensive water management strategy in First Nations communities, suggest the need for an alternative approach to sanitation risk management beyond the traditional end-of-pipe regulatory framework provided by regulations.
The objective of this research is to identify key hazards in centralized, decentralized, and MTA systems in First Nations communities using a sanitation safety planning (SSP) framework. Previous studies have emphasized an inventory of infrastructure deficiencies and regulatory barriers for both water and sanitation systems [8
], but have not integrated these findings into a practical management strategy to improve wastewater systems in First Nations communities. This research investigates how the SSP process can be used to operationalize system management through proactive risk assessment, shifting the focus from aggregated summary reports to actionable improvements for communities.
1.2. Sanitation Safety Planning
SSP is a collaborative management methodology promoted by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the assessment and reduction of risk in sanitation systems [13
]. Similar to the well-known and widely studied drinking water counterpart, water safety planning (WSP) [14
], SSPs focus on hazard identification and proactive risk management. SSPs aggregate information about risk along the entire sanitation chain by engaging relevant stakeholders, defining the boundaries and components of the sanitation system, identifying hazards, and assigning risk, and then prioritize recommendations for risk mitigation and system improvement to maintain safe effluent water quality to protect human and environmental health [13
]. The full SSP cycle is presented in the Supplementary Materials in Figure S1
While SSPs are similar to WSP in several ways, there are key differences that make it important not to simply replicate the drinking water approach in sanitation systems. In drinking water systems, exposure groups are largely limited to consumers of water. However, in a sanitation system, there are multiple endpoint groups that may be exposed to effluent, as wastewater effluent may be utilized for other activities such as agricultural irrigation [13
]. In addition, while drinking water guidelines have been revised for decades to best protect human health and avoid exposure to contaminants, the regulatory environment for sanitation systems is less well-defined, with roles and responsibilities shared across different sectors due to the multi-stakeholder nature of these systems [17
]. Because roles and responsibilities are plural, a single agency to implement an SSP is often inadequate. This is particularly true for systems in First Nations communities that fall under multiple federal agencies for oversight and guidance [18
]. The plurality of stakeholders involved in a sanitation system represents a key consideration for SSP implementation [13
SSP provides an alternative approach to First Nations wastewater management in Canada because it prioritizes and relies on local knowledge to identify, address, and monitor context-specific hazards along the entire sanitation chain within a community and promotes the development of community-appropriate multibarrier risk reduction [19
]. The SSP methodology brings together actors and stakeholders from multiple sectors and has the potential to improve communication and facilitate joint problem-solving [17
]. Because SSPs should be developed collaboratively between communities and key agencies, the process allows the inclusion of First Nations perspectives of water and water protection by including community stakeholders [13
]. At its core, SSP management aims to maximize health benefits and minimize health risks of treated wastewater to protect receiving bodies and ensure sustainable environmental and human health [13
The purpose of this study was to examine the potential benefits of an SSP approach to provide risk-based proactive management framework for wastewater systems in First Nations communities. The objective was achieved by completing the following tasks: (i) identify key stakeholders in First Nations wastewater systems critical to successful SSP adoption, (ii) characterize wastewater systems in 29 First Nations communities, and (iii) use an SSP checklist to examine risks present in these communities. The results of this analysis revealed key hazards common among centralized, decentralized, and MTA systems that can direct future SSP development efforts and inform practical management decisions in First Nations communities. We focused our study on First Nations communities located within Atlantic Canada; an abundance of information was available from these communities through previously established research relationships. Information collected and shared by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chief Secretariat (APC) provided an in-depth, low-impact, and non-invasive opportunity to complete a desktop study of wastewater concerns in these First Nations communities.
1.3. Positionality/Reflexivity Statement
The authors of this study represent students and researchers from the Centre for Water Resource Studies (CWRS) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The CWRS, through its Director Dr. Graham Gagnon, has maintained a close working relationship with the APC. This research was conducted with the support of the APC, which advocates a strong Indigenous voice supported by research and analysis, aimed at changing policies impacting First Nations. The authors have used this connection to explore wastewater systems in the First Nations systems connected to the APC. Dr. Stoddart facilitated the acquisition of the reports requested from the APC for this study and guided the investigation of how an SSP framework could benefit First Nations communities. Dr. Lane provided insight to the SSP and risk analysis process through experience with past work on water safety planning in several of the same First Nations communities. The authors acknowledge that we bring a post-positivist and pragmatist worldview to the evaluation of risk in these water systems from our training as engineers and risk specialists. We attempt to understand wastewater concerns in these systems in the context of the sociopolitical realities present in First Nations communities in Canada. Due to funding and time constraints, direct inclusion of First Nations stakeholders was not possible at the time this study was being conducted. The authors have attempted to provide a critical analysis specifically of the SSP framework with current data available for these systems with the knowledge that successful adoption of the SSP method would require further studies that engage and include First Nations stakeholders as full participants and collaborators.