VICTORIA, British Columbia — Access to safe and affordable water is a human right and SDG 6 aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Inuit communities in Canada are citizens of a high-income, water-wealthy nation. Yet, their access to proper water and sanitation infrastructure is similar to that of low-income countries. Poor water and sanitation infrastructure in the Canadian Arctic have resulted in disproportionately high numbers of boil-water advisories (BWAs) and waterborne diseases when compared to the rest of the country.
The majority of the 65,000 Inuit peoples in Canada reside in Inuit Nunangat, which encompasses Nunavut, Northern Quebec, Northern Labrador and part of the Northwest Territories. Inuit communities in Canada have historically faced economic and political marginalization, which has resulted in large infrastructure gaps and contributed to the region’s high levels of poverty. For example, Nunavut had a child poverty rate of 31.2% in 2020, which was significantly higher than the national average of 18.6%.
Water Infrastructure in Inuit Nunangat
Drinking water services in Inuit Nunangat are in a state of degeneration and are often vulnerable to failure due to the aged nature of these systems. As a result of these aged systems, in 2020, a study rated 84.4% of water pump stations in Nunavut as substandard.
While most Inuit communities in Canada have access to running water, 41 out of 51 communities solely obtain their drinking water from trucked water services that deliver to household water tanks. However, trucked water delivery is unreliable due to the frequency of extreme weather events in the Arctic.
Inuit Nunangat also experiences a lack of water treatment services. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment recommends the use of a multi-barrier filtration system to treat drinking water. Yet, most Inuit communities in Canada solely rely on chlorination for water treatment. While chlorination can target microbiological contaminants, it fails to eliminate metals and organic contaminants in community water sources.
BWAs and Disease Risk
Due to the lack of reliable water treatment, Inuit communities in Canada are more likely to be under BWAs than the rest of the country. The government of Canada issued 298 BWAs issued in Inuit Nunangat between 2015 and 2020. Fifteen of these BWAs continued for more than three months and four BWAs remained in place for more than 12 months.
The frequency of BWAs has exacerbated public health concerns in Inuit Nunangat. In 2018, Inuit communities in Canada had “one of the highest self-reported incidence rates of acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) in global peer-reviewed literature” due to the frequent contamination of drinking water. Inuit communities also have high incidences of skin, respiratory tract and other water-borne illnesses.
Hygiene-related illnesses are also prevalent in Inuit Nunangat due to the frequency of water rationing. Inuit communities that rely on trucked water delivery to fill household tanks also rely on sanitation trucks to empty household septic tanks. Because household water supply is shut off when septic tanks become full, households that rely on trucked water are more likely to ration or run out of water supplies due to the unreliability of these services.
Water rationing can lead to poor hygiene practices and increase susceptibility to infectious diseases like tuberculosis. In 2016, Inuit communities in Canada had a tuberculosis rate 38 times greater than the rest of the country.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is one of the most prominent organizations advocating for the rights of Inuit communities in Canada at the federal level. ITK conducts various research projects that help inform policy decisions and provide guidance to the Canadian federal government on issues specific to Inuit communities. The research reports that ITK published also work to educate the Canadian public on issues Inuit communities face.
To bring international attention to the human right to safe drinking water, the ITK partnered with the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an NGO representing the interests of Inuit communities in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland.
In August 2021, the two organizations submitted a report to the U.N. Special Rapporteur outlining four key recommendations for governments to implement to improve the decrepit nature of water and sanitation services in Inuit communities.
One of the recommendations called for the Canadian government to make major investments in Inuit communities to fill infrastructure gaps in water and sanitation. The report also encouraged the Canadian government to expand its current policy of ending BWAs on First Nations reserves to include Inuit communities.
For Canada to achieve SDG 6, the federal government needs to focus its attention on improving the water and sanitation infrastructure in Inuit Nunangat. Access to safe drinking water is not only a human right but is also a fundamental requirement for lifting people out of poverty and building a healthy society.
– Kaitlyn DeWeerd