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Water Report Details Some Woes, Misses Others

A report released by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada finds that more than one-third of First Nations water systems are at risk of developing unsafe water conditions.
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It is said that the scope of a problem must be understood before the issue can be addressed. This is especially proving to be the case as First Nations leaders absorb the results of a two-year study that found that 39 percent of the 807 water systems inspected were classified as at high risk for overall safety, 34 percent carried a medium risk and 27 percent were considered low-risk.

Although water problems have long been documented on First Nation reserves, these numbers surprised even those familiar with the problems, which could cost as much as $6 billion to fix.

“The report released today is shocking in that it reveals the quality of drinking water in First Nation communities is even worse than anticipated,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement. “More than half the water systems our people are using are risky systems. While First Nations have been calling attention to this matter for years, today’s report should spark swift and urgent action to ensure the health and safety of our people.”

Such action should not put the onus on the First Nations themselves without helping increase their capacity, the Chiefs of Ontario pointed out in a news release.

“In the past, the federal government’s approach to addressing clean and waste water issues for First Nations’ communities through proposed legislation was the elaboration and enforcement of clean water and waste water standards in First Nation communities, thus delegating responsibility and liability to First Nations without addressing infrastructure and related capacity issues,” the chiefs stated. “This report confirms the need for action on infrastructure and capacity investment as a prerequisite.”

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The study commissioned by AAND, the National Assessment of Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nation Communities, was conducted by an independent firm between 2009 and 2010 and released on July 14. Independent water engineers inspected 4,000 systems on reserves, including 1,300 water and wastewater systems, as well as more than 800 wells and 1,900 septic fields that serve 571 First Nation communities. In all, the systems of 571 First Nations communities, or 97 percent, were surveyed, AAND said. It was the first such study and was geared to provide the agency and First Nations with a detailed, comprehensive look at what they’re up against.

“The report gives us a more complete picture of the challenges and opportunities ahead,” AAND said in a release. “It also shows that more needs to be done, especially in areas like capacity and monitoring.”

Chief Guy Lonechild of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) called for immediate investments in First Nations’ water systems in Saskatchewan and increased training and salaries for First Nation water treatment operators, according to an FSIN communiqué.

Grand Chief David Harper of Keewatinowi Okimakinak pointed out that the report only speaks to the plight of First Nations with water systems and does not address the issues faced by homes that receive their daily water in buckets and lack indoor plumbing. Of the 1,880 on-reserve homes nationwide that have no water service and 1,777 without wastewater service, 47 percent are in Manitoba, the report said. A Winnipeg Free Press series in fall 2010 detailed the myriad effects of the lack of indoor plumbing on community health, among other areas of life, noting that many families in the community of Island Lake “have less clean water to use per day than is recommended for refugee camps by the United Nations.”

"They are missing the whole point," Harper told the Winnipeg Free Press of the government’s water study. "I'm very surprised. We had high hopes for this report."