May 5, 2021

Schulich grad student bridges gaps for Indigenous water treatment operators

Bita Malekian recognized as changemaker in UCalgary’s 2021 Sustainability Awards
Bita Malekian founded Water Movement. Submitted

It’s something many of us take for granted — clean drinking water.

You turn on the tap and it’s there. Yet more than 30,000 Canadians can’t say that, and most are Indigenous.

Bita Malekian has made it her mission to expose the inequality, but to also connect those communities and water operators to share information and access training videos through Water Movement.

“One of our core values is sustainability,” she says. “We see this initiative as a continuous cycle — operators tell us what they would like to see different, we produce the content, and repeat.”

Malekian has been applauded for her work, including being named to the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 Under 30 and L’Oreal’s Women of Worth.

Bita Malekian was a nominee in L'Oreal's Women of Worth campaign.

Recently, she was also recognized with the Graduate Student Sustainability Award through the University of Calgary’s annual Sustainability Awards.

Inspiring change

Malekian graduated from the Schulich School of Engineering in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and immediately immersed herself in her first job with an energy company.

She says being taught by Dr. Ron Hugo, PhD, was one of her most rewarding experiences at Schulich, but it also opened her eyes to the world outside of her career.

“Through his experimental learning method, we were taught how to apply our base knowledge and critical-thinking skills to innovate,” Malekian said. “It was in his courses where I discovered the value of collaboration.”

She joined the Calgary Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders, where she became aware of some of the issues facing Indigenous water facilities and operators. Those conversations led to meetings with people like Warren Brown at the Lytton First Nation and Deon Hassler from the Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation.

“They are everyday heroes in their communities,” Malekian says. “Their knowledge and expertise have made them admirable and prominent leaders in the water sector. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

Building relationships

In Malekian’s eyes, the relationships being built with the communities and the operators are based on reliability and trust.

She and the Water Movement team have spent countless hours visiting with them and seeing their day-to-day challenges. While they aren’t new problems, they needed to find a way to finally address the gaps.

“They work long hours and, on-site, they don’t have the time to set up a camera and film the best way to perform a maintenance procedure,” she says. “Nor do they have time to design a website where they can connect and collaborate, outside of regional Facebook pages.”

While her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, Malekian is hesitant about the accolades she has received.

“It’s bittersweet because, quite frankly, this issue shouldn’t exist in the first place,” she says. “We are a G7/G8/G20 country, we have one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world, and yet we still have all these people without access to clean drinking water.”

Calling it a violation of human rights, Malekian says Indigenous communities are affected most by this crisis, so she is making it a priority to use the recognition as a way to keep raising awareness about the issue.

She adds that once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Water Movement will be visiting with more operators across the country and filming their knowledge, with the goal of expanding its video learning library.

“With less than 10 years to go in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals, we need to come together to solve some of society's most complex issues,” Malekian says. “And engineers play a big role in that.”

Bita Malekian is in the final days of her MEng and is set to graduate in June with a degree in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering with Energy and Environment Specialization. She says she enrolled in the program because it offered options to take water-focused courses. "The program helped me gain insight on some of the technical aspects involved with water treatment facilities."