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Expert View: Safe Water and Sanitation in Arctic Communities

Access to safe and reliable drinking water and sanitation services is a concern for many Arctic communities. We talk to water experts about some of the challenges.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Many Arctic communities do not have access to safe and reliable drinking water or sanitation.Richard Webb, CC BY-SA 2.0

The high costs of infrastructure and the harsh and changing climate mean that many communities in the Arctic cannot rely on their water systems. In Alaska, some communities still use “honey buckets” as toilets or pay high service bills for the cost of clean water. A lack of running water is often associated with a higher incidence of disease, including respiratory infections among infants.

A new Arctic Council project called WASH, or “Improving Health in Arctic Communities through Safe and Affordable Access to Household Running Water and Sewer: Water, Sanitation and Health,” is looking to gather data on the status of water and sewer infrastructure in Arctic communities and their health outcomes, innovation in water and sewer technologies, and identifying climate-related vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies.

This week, researchers and community members gathered in Anchorage, Alaska, at the Conference on Water Innovations for Healthy Arctic Homes to talk about addressing the challenges of providing safe and affordable water and sanitation in remote Arctic communities.

Arctic Deeply asked water researchers about their research and the challenges of providing reliable and affordable access to running water and sanitation services. Here’s what they had to say:

Laura Eichelberger, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio

As an anthropologist, I get my data from the stories people tell me, my experiences living among those people and participating in their daily lives for weeks and months at a time, and from my observations.

In the summer of 2008, I was in Ambler, Alaska. The global price of crude oil was at record-high levels and the community was flying in fuel at extra cost because erosion had reduced the depth of the Kobuk River. City leaders were talking about shutting down the piped water and sewer system because they could not afford the fuel and electricity to keep it running.

The main statistics on clean water access in rural Alaska show that an estimated 20 percent of households lack in-home plumbing, haul treated water from a central watering point and use five-gallon “honey buckets” as toilets. In rural Alaska, water insecurity means not having enough water, not knowing its quality and having to deal with poor health outcomes that come with it.

People in the Iñupiaq and Yupik communities where I work want reliable access to clean water and good sanitation, but they also recognize that the technologies introduced so far have often failed to meet these objectives, contributed to community dependence on state subsidies and have had unintended cultural consequences.

My research examines how water insecurity affects daily life, health and well-being, and how people talk about water insecurity. There is local concern that technology can have negative effects. When you haul water for your family or elders, share it with others or spend time hauling water or dumping honey buckets, you are contributing to the community. These are also opportunities for elders to pass on traditional knowledge.

The challenge is to find ways to improve water and sanitation in rural Alaska Native communities in ways that reflect their existing cultural systems. The fact that over 20 percent of these households are water insecure isn’t just a problem – it’s an opportunity.

Carlee Wright, graduate student in epidemiology at the University of Guelph, Canada

Rigolet is a small, remote Inuit community in the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador, Canada. Unlike some Arctic communities, Rigolet has tap water supplied by underground pipes. Even so, the community faces ongoing challenges related to its water quality.

The municipal piped water is chlorinated but remains unfiltered, causing it to appear brown. Alongside concerns over appearance, taste and smell, boil-water advisories have perpetuated the poor perceptions of the water quality and safety in town. An advanced drinking water system (ADWS) was constructed in early 2014 to supply the town with treated and filtered water. But with this new system, people must bring containers to the station, fill them with clean water and haul them home to store for later consumption.

Residents prefer the ADWS water over piped tap water, but challenges remain, including the cost, maintenance and sustainability of the system. The ADWS is expensive to run, and interruptions in service have occurred when parts have not been available for repair, leaving residents without consistent access to filtered water.

On top of all this, ADWS water can become recontaminated with pathogens during storage, and this may add to already high rates of acute gastrointestinal illness, or vomiting and/or diarrhea in the community. These problems have called the long-term sustainability of the ADWS into question and added to the frustrations of those who rely on it. Access to an affordable and reliable source of drinking water is an ongoing struggle in Rigolet and in other Canadian Inuit communities.

Andrew Medeiros, expert in freshwater ecology, biogeochemical processes and Arctic environments at York University in Toronto

I’m interested in understanding how environmental change will influence northern aquatic systems. Freshwater is important to both the natural and human ecosystems in the Arctic. But its extreme climates can make it challenging for municipal planners and engineers to provide freshwater services to a population. In addition to these natural challenges, northern regions face financial and human capital limitations, which have left a legacy of freshwater systems that underserve current populations and may be inadequate in the near future under increased demand in a warming climate.

My research takes a look at water sources and evaluates their sustainability in the future, under warmer climate conditions. By using research methods that forecast future water supply, we can investigate the adequacy of municipal water supplies to sustain northern communities.

Our results show that rainfall strongly influences lakes and rivers in the eastern Canadian Arctic throughout the open-water season, putting these systems at risk under conditions of lower rainfall. Likewise, reservoirs also show a pronounced vulnerability to reduced winter precipitation and/or increased ice thickness.

Our investigation into current infrastructure proposals in northern Canada has revealed significant deficiencies to maintain a stable supply of freshwater in multiple communities under multiple climate and demand scenarios. However, our methods can also evaluate alternative supply strategies, which can help communities plan and extend the life of the current and future municipal supply.

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