Home Inuit Forum Amid COVID-19, drinking water issues persist in Inuit Nunangat

Amid COVID-19, drinking water issues persist in Inuit Nunangat

Water Lake, Aklavik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region. © Tom McLeod

Canada is the most water wealthy nation in the world. And yet, across Inuit Nunangat, and for many First Nations and Métis Nation communities, historic underfunding has led to insufficient development and maintenance of community water infrastructure. 

This infrastructure is often aged and vulnerable to disrepair or failure. In Nunavut, for example, 87 per cent of water treatment facilities and 84 per cent of water pump stations are reported to be in poor condition. This has severe implications — in Pond Inlet, sampling has found that deteriorating pipes are releasing copper, lead, and other harmful chemicals into the drinking water. Deteriorating water infrastructure is a contributor to the high number of boil water advisories across Inuit Nunangat. 

The limited number of piped water distribution systems in Inuit Nunangat tend to be decades older than their intended lifespans, and the reliability of trucked water systems is often compromised by multiple factors, including blizzards and mechanical breakdowns. Related challenges such as overcrowding in homes and inadequate housing construction present additional barriers to drinking water access. 

COVID‐19 has thrown the issue of access to drinking water into sharp relief. In Spring 2020, Iqaluit had seven “priority” water leaks in distribution pipes, which coincided with COVID‐19‐related stay‐at‐home orders. This contributed to the city going over its daily water use target by approximately 300,000 litres a day. In Inukjuak, Nunavik, only one of three sewage trucks were operational in November 2020. Some households were without access to water for two weeks, meaning residents could not wash their hands because their septic tanks were full and could not be emptied. 

The increasing threat of climate change is heightening our collective anxieties around our precarious water infrastructure, building upon the already serious water accessibility issues that our people face. Inuit Nunangat is becoming hotter and drier, which is diminishing the availability of freshwater in Inuit Nunangat as permafrost melts and precipitation and evaporation patterns change. 

These combined factors paint an alarming picture. ITK is encouraged that the 2021 federal budget included billions for infrastructure in Indigenous communities. However, although dedicated federal investment has been made to reduce boil water advisories in First Nations communities, no such promise has been made for Inuit. 

It comes down to a matter of when, not if, our communities will be drawn into a water crisis. Timelines are integral to solving this issue, and must be a priority not just to keep our people safe, but in order to drive further infrastructure projects in Inuit Nunangat. Inuit Nunangat has a desperate need for more homes, for example, but without parallel investments in water infrastructure more homes will only serve to exacerbate water security challenges. 

We have become accustomed to patching something if it breaks, which is too often the only available solution for the continuation of essential services in Inuit Nunangat. However, access to safe drinking water is a right and cannot be guaranteed through quick fixes. Ensuring water accessibility throughout Inuit Nunangat requires strategic, forward thinking budgeting and planning. 

Learn more about access to drinking water in Inuit Nunangat in ITK’s recent quarterly research briefing. Visit https://www.itk.ca/access-to-drinking-water-in-inuit-nunangat/

Natan Obed 

President, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 

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