The City of Iqaluit in Spring 2021. Photo: Kaylia Little
Infrastructure in the Arctic is a topic that is growing in importance. Due to the harsh climate and often remote nature of settlements in the Arctic, communities struggle to have their basic needs met. The precarity of Canada’s Arctic infrastructure was highlighted most recently by the contamination of Iqaluit’s water supply. The slow reaction time to assess the situation and the slow move to a solution demonstrates a gap in Canada’s Arctic security and disaster preparedness. Iqaluit is a territorial capital, but it is often an afterthought of the Federal government as demonstrated by the over two-year delay of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s first visit, which happened in 2017.1) This is further validated by its housing crisis, subpar telecommunications infrastructure, poor waste management, limited health infrastructure, and now a water crisis created, in part, by a lack of understanding of the infrastructure needs of the climate. As climate and environmental changes increase the strain on already limited infrastructure, issues like these will become more frequent. Addressing the water infrastructure gap in the Canadian Arctic will require a well-funded and climate-informed approach to ensure that it meets the needs of current and future generations.
In early October 2021, residents of Iqaluit, Nunavut began to notice a foul taste and smell coming from the tap water. Typically, the water in Iqaluit is safe to drink. At first, reports were limited to a community Facebook group, but eventually an official complaint was made to the City of Iqaluit. The initial testing of the city’s water supply found no evidence of fuel or other contaminants. Residents were reassured by the mayor that the water was safe to drink. This news received mixed reactions, with some residents being reassured and others not convinced. Complaints and worries continued to be shared on the community Facebook group. The continued concerns led to a second round of testing of the water supply, which revealed the presence of fuel in the water, making it unsafe for drinking and even for bathing for babies and pregnant individuals. For a remote community, this was a devastating blow, as bottled water had to be flown in from southern Canada. The City of Iqaluit and Government of Nunavut began distributing free water jugs and bottled water. Others took to the Sylvia Grinnell River, which is a trusted natural source of fresh water. After confirming the presence of fuel in the water supply, it took two months for officials to find the source of contamination, which was identified as a 60-year-old fuel tank that was buried next to the water treatment plant. Due to the prolonged water crisis, the Canadian military was dispatched to Iqaluit to set up a temporary water treatment site on the Sylvia Grinnell River.2) In the end, it took over two months for the contamination to be identified and removed from the water of Iqaluit. In January 2022, a new “Do Not Consume” order was issued after fuel contamination was discovered once again.3)
Infrastructure in the Arctic faces numerous challenges which directly impact the quality of life and health of residents, as well as economic development opportunities in the region. Canada’s Arctic infrastructure, specifically the infrastructure in the territorial capital of Iqaluit, is aging and limited. As noted by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated’s (NTI) 2020 infrastructure report, the gap between Nunavut and the rest of Canada is large and widening. This gap is sometimes difficult to quantify because the Canadian federal government does not collect data on all forms of infrastructure in Nunavut, such as solid waste disposal.4) This represents one of the many challenges for sustainable development in the North, as the lack of reliable data means there is no baseline. More specifically, according to NTI’s report, Nunavut’s drinking water infrastructure is below the Canadian national standards. NTI’s assessment was in line with Ecojustice’s 2019 evaluation which gave Nunavut a “D” on its water infrastructure, the lowest of any Canadian province or territory. The low grade was due to its low water treatment standards and limited infrastructure.5) Only 14% of Nunavummiut are served by piped water. 6) Rankin Inlet, Resolute Bay, and parts of Iqaluit are the only Nunavut communities served by piped water. The National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health states that the reason for Nunavut’s reliance on trucked water is due to the lower investment required for construction and maintenance, although operating costs are higher.7) Furthermore, NTI reported that 85% of Nunavut’s drinking water infrastructure is in poor condition.8) The systemic under-funding and under-investment in Nunavut’s drinking water infrastructure demonstrates a lack of commitment from the Federal government. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment endorses the use of a multi-barrier drinking water filtration system. However, none of the water plants in Nunavut utilize this standard, instead relying on chlorination.9) In addition to the subpar state of water infrastructure in Nunavut, the cost of operating and maintaining these systems is ten times the national average.10) The combination of deteriorating infrastructure and high operating costs mean that investments in upgrades are not feasible due to underfunding from the Federal government.
Water crises like the recent fuel contamination are not new to residents of Iqaluit. In 2019, the City of Iqaluit spent $330,000 in two and a half weeks thawing frozen water pipes.11) The freezing of the pipes was directly caused by climate change, the effects of which are much more apparent in polar regions. Instances like these are becoming more frequent in Iqaluit, which declared water emergencies in both 2018 and 2019 due to historic lows in the City’s potable water reservoir, Lake Geraldine. These emergencies were caused by a combination of low precipitation, leaking infrastructure, and population growth.12) The government of Canada acknowledges in its Arctic and Northern Policy Framework that the Canadian Arctic is warming at three times the global average.13) The Framework discusses funding investments in transportation, education, and nutrition – all much needed areas of investment but it does not provide specific targeted funding for increasing the safety and resiliency of water infrastructure in Arctic and northern communities. Although Goal 2 of the Framework is “Strengthened infrastructure that closes gaps with other regions of Canada”, there is no mention of improving drinking water infrastructure in the North.
Estimates from the City of Iqaluit in 2019 stated that a full replacement of the city’s piped water system would cost $55.2 million, with another $106.3 million budgeted for road upgrades for the parts of the city that receive trucked water.14) For comparison, the total budget for City was only $83.2 million (operating and capital budgets combined).15) In June of 2021, the Nunavut Housing Corporation estimated that the price of building material in Nunavut had increased by 40% to 50% since 2020.16) With the increasing cost of materials, it is appropriate to assume that the upgrade estimates from 2019 would be at least double, if not more. The price Iqalummiut pay for underinvestment in water infrastructure is not insignificant. A new bypass system was installed as a result of the water emergency in 2021, which cost $100,000 and is only for temporary emergency use.17) In November 2021, the federal New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh stated in a speech in Iqaluit that the latest estimate to fix the City’s water infrastructure was at least $180 million.18) The increase in cost and lack of action by the Canadian federal government continues to demonstrate an absence of commitment to the Canadian Arctic.
Water emergencies such as those in 2018, 2019, and again in 2021 and 2022 cause added stress to community members and often facilitate a reduction in the quality of public services. For example, in 2019, the Quebec ombudsman stated that water shortages in Nunavik compromise the quality of health care in Inukjuak.19) Thus, extended water crises can weaken already limited health infrastructure in Inuit communities like Iqaluit which are already facing extra pressure due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, water crises and other infrastructure emergencies can negatively impact small business and entrepreneurs. Restaurants and coffee shops either need to remain closed due to the inability to use water in the kitchens or accept additional financial burden if they choose to purchase bottled water to maintain operation.
The most recent water emergencies have made some residents lose confidence in their public bodies. For example, an Iqaluit resident penned a public letter to the Premier of Nunavut, along with other Ministers, and the federal member of parliament requesting a public inquiry.20) The Government of Nunavut will be conducting a third-party review of the incident, but there are concerns that this will not be transparent. A former cabinet minister suggested that a public review might increase confidence in the government.21) The mayor of Iqaluit has spoken in support of either a third-party review or inquiry.22)
The impacts of Iqaluit’s decaying and limited water infrastructure go beyond those felt during a crisis. The current water source that the City relies on restricts its growth. No new building developments can be added to the current water source.23) Iqaluit and Nunavut have a well-documented housing shortage, which is caused by a myriad of issues including water infrastructure. The complexity of infrastructure issues cannot be overstated, but the Canadian federal government’s lack of a comprehensive plan to address the deficits with a committed budget demonstrates the systemic inattention to issues facing northern and Arctic communities. If Canada wants to support a strong, safe, and resilient Arctic it needs to commit to long term plans to rebuild Northern infrastructure. Any new infrastructure must be climate informed and built with a rapidly shifting environment in mind.
Kaylia Little is a PHD Candidate in Sustainability Management at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo.