What a circular water system could mean for Alberta

Mohamed Gamal El-Din, a professor at the University of Alberta, has been named Canada Research Chair in sustainable and resilient wastewater treatment for reuse. He has received $1.4 million in funding to research wastewater recycling.

U of A professor has $1.4 million in funding to research wastewater recycling

Four scientists wear lab coats and stand behind a series of pumps, measuring water cleanliness.
Professor Mohamed Gamal El-Din, second from right, is using decades of research into water treatment in his new role as a Canada Research Chair. (Submitted by Mohamed Gamal El-Din)

A University of Alberta researcher is receiving $1.4 million over seven years to support the creation of a circular water system.

"Eventually we're going to have to be very careful with our water," Mohamed Gamal El-Din told CBC's Radio Active, after being named Canada Research Chair in sustainable and resilient wastewater treatment for reuse.

He is one of 12 scholars at the U of A receiving the academic honour to advance their work for a greener future.

Gamal El-Din also sits as the director of the University of Alberta Water Research Centre, which opened this year.

With a hub of experts looking at water supply, demand, treatment, reuse and infrastructure, the new space will help with his appointment as Canada Research Chair. But he's aware of the timeline ahead.

The end goal is a holistic approach to water reuse, incorporating engineering, environment, science and the social aspects of bringing water into a resilient circular water system.

"We have to look at our water as a very important natural resource going forward," said Gamal El-Din. "We're lucky we have a lot of water resources here, but it's never going to last like that forever."

We meet the U of A professor giving a new life to wastewater.

Municipalities in Alberta already reuse wastewater — treating it and returning it to the receiving environment — and the province developed a Water For Life strategy in 2008 to focus on water management, healthy lakes, fracking and wastewater.

But the process of treating and reusing wastewater is far from perfect, producing a sludge that can contain pollutants.

"It's kind of like, you removed it from one phase and put it in another phase. So how can we deal with it to make sure it doesn't come back to us through the environment or other routes?" said Gamal El-Din.

His first step is to work with technologies that exist, and grow those that can be developed, to better treat water. This includes green options, he said.

"For example, we are working on using solar as a source of energy to apply in oxidation processes."

An aerial view of an oilsands facility.
Gamal El-Din has worked with the oil and gas sector to research treating the wastewater in tailings ponds. It's one way the province can change how we use water for a better future, he says. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Gamal El-Din's research also includes working with companies in the oil and gas sector to treat tailings ponds, and find methods to scale up and implement better treatment, something he has been researching for years.

"All this water needs to be reclaimed and put back into the environment safely or reused. We're close to getting there."

The pressure is on as standards of treatment are changing and climate change is forcing governments to rethink how we use resources.

Originally from Egypt, Gamal El-Din earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at Cairo University and then a master's degree at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. He came to the U of A in 1995 for his PhD in environmental engineering.

Gamal El-Din says he's seen first-hand the changes that affect our water supply, like changing weather patterns.

This summer's drought in southern Alberta led to a scary situation for farmers, as six counties declared agricultural disasters. A similar situation unfolded in 2021 with a massive drought.

"Things have to change going forward," he said.

The idea of treating wastewater for irrigation, or even drinking, is a high priority. There is also hope for a secondary market, where the sludge byproduct can be repurposed as a soil amendment, or resources like nitrogen and phosphorus can be pulled from the wastewater.

"That's what we mean by circular economy — to reuse what we have, not to look at it as a waste, but more or less to look at it as a source."

Gently used H2O

Amid the push for better water treatment, there is the challenge in making second-hand water more attractive. 

Norman Neumann has been a professor of public health at the U of A for decades. He often tests people — presenting a glass of water that he says is perfectly safe, but came from sewage. 

Few people say they'd willingly take a sip.

"It's that ick factor," he said. "But in reality, it happens in nature in other ways. Water treatment has come to the forefront as being one of the most important public health interventions of humankind."

A hand fills a glass of water at a faucet.
While water contamination is a big fear, professor Norman Neumann says it's come a long way, and we have to change how we think about reused wastewater. (Radio-Canada)

Municipalities treat wastewater and return it to its source; other municipalities downstream then pull their own water from the same source.

And while the idea of waterborne illness is a concern, Neumann says the risk in the context of Gamal El-Din's research is low.

"We're facing a trifecta of challenges — urbanization, climate change and scarcity in Alberta," Neumann said. "We have to start thinking differently about water."


Clare Bonnyman

Digital associate producer

Clare Bonnyman is a producer and reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked across the country and has expertise in digital reporting, audio production and podcasting. Clare won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2019 for sports feature reporting. She focuses on stories about sound and community. You can reach her at clare.bonnyman@cbc.ca.