Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

Authorities in the Canadian Arctic territory Nunavut, announced a state of emergency this week due to a possible contamination event affecting the City of Iqaluit's water supply.

Tests were performed after residents reported the smell of gasoline coming from their tap water, but they came back clean. However, the potential for petroleum hydrocarbon contamination was detected in subsequent tests, which prompted officials to investigate.

Why This Matters

Petroleum hydrocarbons can cause serious health risks, like cancer, to people of all ages -- even at low levels of exposure. The population of Iqaluit is largely Inuit, and the declared state of emergency is yet another example of environmental injustice for Indigenous peoples. Many First Nations communities in Canada have already been living without safe water for decades. They have been forced to live on bottled and prepackaged water, which can be incredibly expensive in remote regions like Iqaluit.

Liquid Gold

The results of further examination are still pending, but Amy Elgersma, the city's chief administrative officer told City Council they "suspect that there is … some type of petroleum product in the water." In the meantime, officials have advised residents to avoid drinking, cooking, or bathing children with tap water -- even if boiled or filtered.

The crisis is exacerbated by the already astronomical cost of bottled water in the region. Even before this week's demand spike, the challenge of shipping to the far north-region means a liter of water could cost as much as $9 per liter. Iqaluit resident, Johnny Mark, told CBC Canada, "all my life water has been free, and we have never had this problem, so this is something new to me."

The city has set filling stations to ease the financial burden on community members and encouraged any residents in need of assistance to contact the city through a drinking water hotline.

NRDCflix: Access to Safe Water is a Human Right, December 9, 2020.

National Geographic: Keeping the Inuit Way of Life Alive in a Changing World, July 22, 2018.