Lifting boil-water advisories: Using theatre to disseminate knowledge

October 2, 2018

Image courtesy of RES’EAU-WaterNET.

By Katie Stannard 


Canada may have 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, but six million Canadians are at risk of disproportionate exposure to deleterious health and socio-economic impacts from untreated/contaminated water compared with urban Canadians. Many of those facing severe water challenges are small First Nations communities, where boil-water advisories are a common occurrence.

This is what prompted 2016 Wall Scholar alumni Madjid Mohseni (Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering) to get involved with RES’EAU-WaterNET, a multi-disciplinary strategic network that connects Canada’s First Nations communities with organizations who can help resolve the prevalent drinking water problem through an innovative community circle model.

Mohseni is the current Scientific Director of RES’EAU-WaterNET, but he credits the Wall Solutions Initiative award he received in 2013 as the reason his team was able to mobilize with non-academic partners to formulate and develop the RES’EAU Community Circle – an award-winning and globally unique model for drinking water that finds solutions that are tailored to the individual community and are reflective of local social-cultural values.

To accomplish this, the RES’EAU team works closely with water operators and communities to comprehend their constraints and identify research priorities. After consultation, they execute research and design which is validated by industry so solutions can be easily adopted.

“We, as engineers, bring certain skills and expertise but the community itself has a great deal of knowledge,” said Mohseni.

“They share their stories, providing a historical perspective of the quality and source of water, as well as traditional methods to preserve clean water which helps us design a customized system.”


Merging Disciplines: Engineering and Theatre

During his time as a Wall Scholar in 2016, Mohseni found a new approach towards water systems, one he attributes to the humanized perspective his cohort provided, which pushed him beyond engineering methods.

As Wall Scholars, Madjid Mohseni and George Belliveau (Department of Language and Literacy Education) connected based on their shared commitment to build social networks and community circles while pursuing meaningful work.

George Belliveau has contributed to the development of research-based theatre as an interdisciplinary methodological approach, as he integrates theatre as a form of research and artistic expression across multiple disciplines. Belliveau uses research-based theatre to disseminate knowledge through creative initiatives such as reciprocal workshops or knowledge-based plays.   

Despite their contrasting disciplines, Mohseni and Belliveau saw an opportunity to merge Belliveau’s interactive research method and Mohseni’s unique community circle. During their residency at the Peter Wall Institute, the two scholars formed a partnership to employ community-based theatre techniques to enhance dialogue among the stakeholders seeking innovative solutions for indigenous drinking water systems.

“The Institute is like a Venn diagram where rather than two disciplines side by side, there is a middle space where scholars have the opportunity to weave our expertise and influence one another’s work,” Belliveau explained. “The Institute’s director, Philippe Tortell, and the Distinguished Professors, nudged our cohort to expand our expertise and discover something together.”

Mohseni and Belliveau led a series of arts-based workshops to pursue intersections between scholarship, community engagement and theatre to significantly enhance the impact of on-going scientific work in water systems. Attendees included health professionals, water engineers, science policy experts, industry partners and end-user communities.  

“It can be challenging to understand the local community’s feelings, the indigenous water operator’s work conditions, and the frustrations that both parties experience,” explained Mohseni. “Through these workshops we can capture certain aspects that can’t be expressed through regular interviews.”

The two scholars are continuing their collaboration by creating a theatrical piece that will mirror the challenges and hopes that water operators across Canada experience in rural, small and indigenous communities. Bridging Mohseni and Belliveau’s expertise, the project aims to engage in further dialogue and present the complexity of water operator’s responsibility.