Aug. 4, 2021
Alumna-led venture amplifies voices of Indigenous water treatment operators
When Bita Malekian, BSc (Eng)’18, MEng’21, received her bachelor’s degree from the Schulich School of Engineering, she was inspired by the call to action to, as she says, “use the skills and knowledge I learned to give back to my community.”
Since then, Malekian has launched Water Movement (WM), a venture supported by the Calgary Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The initiative provides a formal platform for Indigenous water treatment operators across Canada to connect, ask questions and access a video library that features tutorials on a wide variety of topics, from managing treatment plants to tips on testing chlorine residue in water.
It launched in January 2021 and, since then, the data analytics team and WM’s board of directors noticed frequent topics on the platform’s discussion board. One of the frequent topics was communities losing trained operators to larger municipalities, largely due to lack of competitive wages and funding.
Calls to action
On behalf of operators across Canada, WM requested an audience with federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller to discuss calls to action. Ottawa announced a $1.5-billion investment to improve drinking water in remote Indigenous communities; however, local water treatment operators voiced a lack of transparency in support and unclear allocation in funds.
“The operators wanted the minister to establish transparent and clear oversight in operation and maintenance budget,” says Malekian. The operators made several calls to action to the minister:
- Support community leaders in determining competitive operator wages.
- Develop a detailed allocation of the $1.5-billion investment, while establishing a clear and transparent oversight of the operations and maintenance budget.
- Recognize March 21 as National Indigenous Water Treatment Operators Day.
- Support non-profit organizations, similar to WM working directly with operators to create valuable resources.
The call to declare March 21 as National Indigenous Water Treatment Operators Day is in recognition of the work and dedication of operators in providing safe drinking water to communities. WM strategically chose this date ahead of World Water Day on March 22 to acknowledge the operators and providers of clean drinking water. “We want to first celebrate and recognize the water treatment operators who deliver clean water resources before partaking in World Water Day,” says Malekian.
To Malekian’s surprise, the calls to action quickly turned into an advocacy campaign. In the past few months, WM boosted its social media activity by hosting Twitter parties and tagging Miller on social media platforms, all while building nationwide support across Canada to raise awareness on the water crisis. After creating its own TikTok account, WM posted a video that gained half a million views and drew the attention of politicians, celebrities and activists. “This was the turning point in our campaign,” says Malekian. “There was so much conversation around the water crisis … there were Canadians who were unaware of [it] … and this video brought attention to those issues.”
Meeting with the minister
Shortly after the video went viral, a letter was shared with Miller to address the calls to action from water treatment operators. The letter, with more than 500 signatures in support of WM, prompted a formal meeting on May 12 with the minister, water treatment operators and WM’s board of directors.
While the conversation served as a “stepping-stone,” says Malekian, more work is needed. “We want to have follow-up conversations now that we’ve identified these issues — what are we going to do to change policy? What can you implement now that we’ve set out the calls to act?”
The work continues
WM is working with the minister’s acting director of policy, Griffin Marsh, to discuss how WM can serve as a federal resource for other operators across Canada, all while continuing its work to support water treatment operators on site.
Meanwhile, with more than 2,100 users actively engaging on the platform, and in anticipation of 100 new training videos, WM has since secured 12 expert operators throughout Canada to continue building the video library. At UCalgary, WM is consulting with software experts and professors, Dr. Mohammad Moshirpour, BSc’08, BSc (Eng)’09, MSc’11, PhD’16, and Dr. Hamidreza Zareipour, PhD, of the Schulich School of Engineering to support software development and innovations for both its website and an upcoming mobile app to allow for offline streaming.
“For decades now, billions of dollars have been thrown at this water crisis, countless companies have offered solutions, and the issue is widely known. But it still exists,” says Malekian. “The reason WM is successful is because we have remained true to the cause. We are elevating the voices of those who are actually solving the problem.”
- Pictured above, from left: Griffin Marsh, acting director of policy, ISC; Bita Malekian, Water Movement ambassador; Deon Hassler, Indigenous expert operator, Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation, and Water Movement director; Warren Brown, O&M manager, Lytton First Nation, and Water Movement director; Aditya Chaudhuri, Water Movement ambassador; Danielle White, assistant deputy minister, regional operations, ISC; Chad Westmacott, director, general community infrastructure, ISC; Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services.
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