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Green alternative or inferior service?

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Should First Nations with homes spread far apart turn to alternative technologies such as composting toilets and single-home filters?

Anna Fontaine, Manitoba regional director for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said money is being invested at the national level to explore environmentally friendly alternatives.

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A pilot project in Opaskwayak Cree Nation outside The Pas by Winnipeg's Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources concluded composting toilets can be used even in very cold climates.

However, there hasn't been much uptake from First Nations, where residents sometimes view composting toilets not as a 21st-century green alternative, but as another attempt to get them to accept second-class services. A composting toilet big enough to handle the waste from a large family can also be as expensive as hooking up a home to a nearby sewer line.

Harry Swain, former deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, now at the University of Victoria, said homes close to a lake could get their drinking water through individual membrane filter systems.

"It looks kind of like a small water heater and it fits in the corner of your house," he said.

However, INAC officials say individual systems present increased risks of breakdown or contamination. With centralized water and sewer systems, it's easier to guarantee all homes are getting safe water.

The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, is investing heavily in improving health in the developing world by designing cheaper, safer toilets for homes in Africa and Asia, but has not looked at anything that would be suitable for colder climates. The same goes for the Easy Latrine, which two University of Manitoba business graduates developed for use in tropical Cambodia.

Some green innovations are really just a return to the simple practices of our grandparents. Elder Ruth Wood in St. Theresa Point has a tank in summer to collect rainwater for cleaning -- something more local people might do if they got help transporting a tank.

University of Manitoba civil engineering student Brock Campbell, 28, is part of a new generation of First Nations professionals devoting themselves to solving water and sewer problems on reserves.

He hopes to interest INAC in a mobile plant that turns sludge into fertilizer, allowing sewage lagoons to be reused instead of expanded.

"There's all kinds of ways, I'm sure, that problems could be solved. It's just the research money and funding programs."

His parents at Shoal Lake in northwestern Ontario -- the source of Winnipeg's drinking water -- can't drink local water because it's untreated, so they get big bottles delivered to the dock.

"The water is being taken from Shoal Lake all the way to Winnipeg down the aqueduct and then chlorinated, bottled and brought right back to the end of the dock," Campbell said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2010 H5

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