Researchers draw on wellspring of Indigenous knowledge to engineer solutions for water security

First-of-its-kind combination of sociology, environmental engineering and community culture improves access to clean water.

Paulina Johnson and Emily Quecke

Environmental engineering PhD student Emily Quecke (right) and professor Paulina Johnson are working to improve access to clean water in Maskwacis through a first-of-its-kind project guided by Indigenous worldviews and direct community consultation. (Photo: Sam Dancey)

It wasn’t until Emily Quecke worked as a land consultant intern in Beaver First Nation that she realized how easy it is to take clean water for granted. 

Having been born on Prince Edward Island and raised in Alberta, she had never seen water advisories in settler communities. Through the University of Alberta’s Engage North program, she learned about the sanctity of naturally sourced water from elders who believed chemical treatment robs water of its immune-building properties and spirituality.

It was a stark example of what engineers need to know when designing purification plants in Indigenous communities, since there are alternative methods, such as UV filtration, that don’t require chemicals like chlorine.

“It begs the question of whether other options were even explored (on Boyer River 164) in light of these beliefs, or if local plant designers were even aware of it,” Quecke says.

That summer experience made a deep impression on her. As a student of civil and environmental engineering, Quecke says the challenge of water security became a driving force in her education.

She is now working on a PhD dissertation that combines engineering solutions for water security with direct community consultation, incorporating Indigenous worldviews into her methodology. She will compare water security in two geographical areas. The first is Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, which is currently under a boil water advisory and has an open-discharge sewer. The second area is a group of communities around Laguna Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Philippines, which has suffered rapid contamination.

One of her supervisors, sociologist Paulina Johnson, was invited on the project to provide expertise in Indigenous research methodologies and worldviews. With Johnson serving as adjunct professor of engineering, the collaboration is the U of A’s first between sociology and engineering.

“One reason for bringing me in is to have Indigenous worldviews take centre stage in Emily’s work,” says Johnson, who is from Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis.

“What I really like about engineering is they’re trying to find solutions. Emily will bring not only the science — the technical side of water security — but also an understanding of water as an animate being.”

Quecke’s study will assess baseline water quality conditions in the two regions and determine priorities for monitoring and remediation, and aim to improve water quality and access. It will also establish a link between community culture, well-being and access to clean water.

“While water treatment and distribution are engineering problems, water access, use and related knowledge dissemination are also sociological problems,” Quecke says. “A lot of engineering projects, even when there is consultation, tend to be inadequate, because they lack that deeper relationality and sociological understanding.”

Johnson says it’s essential to bring in Indigenous views from the beginning of any community research project, rather than as an afterthought. Too often, she says, researchers in the past have taken what they needed, never to return. Long-term commitment to a community is crucial.

“Reconciliation isn’t just, ‘we did the work and then we’re done’ — it’s a lifelong process,” says Johnson. “Elders often ask me, as an academic, what’s the legacy we’re going to leave behind?”

Johnson admits to being a bit hesitant when first approached by Quecke, given that engineering seemed a far cry from her own discipline. But she was quickly swayed by Quecke’s determination to make a tangible difference in Maskwacis. 

“That’s what I wanted to hear,” she says. “Emily was willing to walk the walk. Ever since then we’ve been going full steam ahead.”

Quecke says she hopes her consultative approach to environmental engineering will function as a template for similar research projects in the future.