Research Stories

Sila. In Inuktitut, the native language spoken by the Inuit, the word means the substance of life. More than the simple air we breathe, Sila encompasses the raw life force that lies over the entire land. The word implies that life is intimately bound to the natural environment. This Inuit ideology of interdependency is at the heart of the Nunavut Wastewater Treatment Program. The program is a collaborative partnership between Queen's, Dalhousie and the Government of Nunavut dedicated to the maintenance of healthful and sustainable communities in Canada's Far North. As contributors to this project, Sarah Thompson and Rami Maassarani, graduate students working under the supervision of Dr. Pascale Champagne and Dr. Geof Hall, have invested their time, knowledge and expertise in cultivating a better understanding of the current performance of passive wastewater systems. Given the extreme climate, remoteness and limited human resources and financial capacity of the Far North, passive (biological) treatments, that is, treatments that do not require external energy sources and rely on natural physical, chemical and biological mechanisms, are ideal. Treatment performance under arctic conditions, however, has been poorly understood, in terms of how the short summers, low temperature and extended photoperiod affect the functionality of these systems 'Äì until now.¬†

Thompson's and Maassarani's research specializes in the implementation of wastewater stabilization ponds (WSP) in Nunavut. Stabilization ponds are naturalized engineered systems for wastewater treatment. The systems consist of shallow man-made basins comprising a single or several anaerobic, facultative and aerobic ponds that treat water consecutively. Thompson is focussing on the impact arctic specific environmental conditions have on microbial/algal communities, specifically in terms of pathogen removal in the aerobic pond; while, Maassarani  is assessing the performance of the Arctic WSP on the basis of overall water quality. The outcome of their collective research will potentially answer questions that could aid in the design of optimal passive treatment systems that are viable, environmentally friendly and economical.

Yet, the most fundamental aspect is the cyclical dependency of passive treatment. The WSP relies on biological organisms, which implies that the natural environment sustains human life; while, the act of implementation implies the reverse, that is, human activity sustains the natural environment. Even the clean water produced feeds back into the cycle of humans nurturing nature and nature nurturing life. It seems then that the Nunavut Wastewater Treatment Program demonstrates what Sila truly means.