As the heat of summer bears down on Ottawa, I reach for a glass of water and take a moment to reflect on the sad reality that being able to drink a glass of cold tap water, shower and do my laundry is a privilege.
Despite Canada having almost one fifth of the world’s fresh water, many Indigenous and northern communities face major infrastructure challenges related to accessing clean water. My hometown of Iqaluit, in October 2021, experienced a water crisis that left the city of 8,000 without clean water for months.
Gasoline particulates seeped into the water treatment centre’s holding tank and took weeks to flush out. It resulted in over 80,000 litres of bottled water being flown up from the south over just one week.
On April 1, 2022, the federal government announced $214 million to upgrade Iqaluit’s water distribution. Due to a combination of factors, including decreased precipitation and increased population growth, the current reservoir that supplies the City of Iqaluit’s water is no longer adequate to sustain residents. The new system will include a new source and supply of potable water, additional storage and a distribution system. This new system is integral to the city’s ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change, support economic growth, and meet residents’ current and future needs.
While I am delighted for Iqaluit’s good fortune, it is important to note that every other community in Nunavut also faces massive infrastructure and capacity gaps with regard to clean drinking water.
Aged infrastructure and a lack of qualified water treatment plant operators, on top of chronic underfunding, continue to leave Nunavummiut in all communities without consistent access to potable water.
While water delivery is largely a provincial/territorial issue, we need to recognize that Nunavut lacks the own-source revenues required to address such a major issue; 90% of the territory’s annual operating budget comes from federal transfers. Additionally, outside of Iqaluit, no community has a tax base, leaving them wholly reliant on funding from the Government of Nunavut for all community upgrades and operation costs.
An analysis of the issue published in May 2022 by The Arctic Institute states: “The systemic underfunding and underinvestment in Nunavut’s drinking water infrastructure demonstrates a lack of commitment from the federal government.” The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment endorses the use of a multi-barrier drinking water filtration system. However, none of the water plants in Nunavut utilize this standard, instead relying on chlorination. In addition to the subpar state of water infrastructure in Nunavut, the cost of operating and maintaining these systems is 10 times the national average.
At the last annual general meeting of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities (NAM), Nunavut’s mayors agreed unanimously that addressing water-related issues should be the top priority for the organization. Iqaluit Mayor and NAM President Kenny Bell has described the present situation as “a catastrophe waiting to happen.”
NAM is currently working with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Community and Government Services to evaluate the state of the territory’s water infrastructure and to assess the total estimated cost of addressing all water-related issues. This work will include, but not be limited to: identifying whether a community has piped water or uses trucks for delivery; assessing the age and condition of water trucks, pipes and treatment facilities; identifying the communities’ capacity for managing and maintaining water treatment plants; assessing the state of the water supply; and identifying additional infrastructure required, including garage facilities for water trucks.
Large, multi-generational problems such as these require innovative solutions. NAM is exploring the potential of a central training program for water plant operators to build local capacity and grow the number of certified operators. They are also exploring options that would decrease the reliance of communities on support from southern communities in the event of an emergency, which saves time and money.
In terms of federal support for these efforts, federal investment can no longer be piecemeal. Feasibility studies, infrastructure construction, operations and maintenance of that infrastructure and training all require money. The federal government needs to look at targeted investments with an eye to the overall goal of fixing the problem.
It is inexcusable that an entire territory of Canada has inconsistent access to safe drinking water.
Senator Dennis Patterson represents Nunavut in the Senate.
A similar version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2022 edition of The Hill Times.