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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Residents of Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut, got word in early March they could finally stop boiling their water after months of boil water advisories and off-and-on water services. Nunavut is Canada’s largest territory, almost the size of Mexico, and is 84 percent Inuit.

A lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation systems are common in the Arctic, according to an Inuit joint submission to the United Nations.

Drinking bottled water and hauling water from a nearby river then from water depots has been a hardship for Iqaluit’s 7,700 residents. And water quality is still a concern with a lake now the town’s main water source.

Iqaluit’s contamination problems started in late September when residents told city officials they smelled chemicals in their tap water. On Oct. 12, the city issued a “do not drink water” advisory. Two days later it began distributing thousands of liters of bottled water. 

After a few weeks, the Canadian Armed Forces assisted by taking water from a nearby river and purifying it using a reverse osmosis system. Later, water was drawn from a nearby lake. Residents were advised to boil water as a precaution, and were told the water was safe but may smell and taste different than usual and may have slight discoloration and sediment. Residents were finally told they could stop boiling water on March 4.

The sources of contamination included an underground 1962-era fuel tank, then some maintenance work, and potentially a spill in the lake, as well as recontamination as workers flushed and fixed the system. In the process, cold weather (with temperatures around 0), storms, slow delivery of necessary supplies, and a shortage of workers held up repairs. Now, the city is continuing to work to upgrade its aged water system.

The issues Iqaluit faces are widespread across the Arctic, according to a joint submittal to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. The paper was submitted by the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Canada in August 2021. It said some 211 communities throughout the Russian Far East, Arctic Alaska, Arctic Canada, and Greenland lack that fundamental human right.

The joint submission notes that, “Limited access to drinking water and/or rudimentary sanitation systems contribute to Inuit experiencing a higher prevalence of infectious diseases and illness, including respiratory tract, skin, and gastrointestinal tract infections…”

Council Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inuipiaq, said “Further, the 2011 ICC Declaration on Resource Development in Inuit Nunaat states, ‘In a contemporary context, healthy communities in the Arctic require the establishment, maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure needs…’ There is nothing more fundamental than safe drinking water, and sanitation infrastructure for our communities.”

The submission includes four key recommendations to make immediate improvements to conditions that are “in many instances deplorable and unsanitary.”

  1. States must make major new Inuit-specific investments in Inuit community water and sanitation infrastructure and take measures to streamline processes for community procurement of funding.
  2. The Arctic Council should be leveraged to support solutions for improving access to drinking water and sanitation.
  3. The Government of Canada must prioritize improving water and sanitation infrastructure in Inuit Nunangat.
  4. States and academic institutions must prioritize investments in Inuit-led research about drinking water and sanitation in Inuit communities.
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