Iqaluit is not simply experiencing a water crisis, it is experiencing the same water crisis it has endured for more than 15 years coming to a climax.
“In front of you, you have a bottle of water. It costs to buy water from the stores. I’m scared that in the future, we might have to buy water,” said Iqaluit Coun. Joanasie Akumalik in July 2018, referring to the water crisis the city faced at the time. At that point, Lake Geraldine, the city’s primary source of water, was unable to support the needs of the growing population.
“I’m scared if we don’t look after this matter very urgently, it’s going to become a chaos for the community,” he added.
That particular leg of the crisis was stemmed by refilling the reservoir the following month, which held back the brink of collapse for the winter at least.
In June 2017, then-York University assistant professor Andrew Medeiros stated that the City of Iqaluit’s water supply could dry up by 2024, noting all it would take for the city’s water supply to dry up is one bad year, as happened in Iglulik in June 2015, when a long, cool spring threatened the community’s water supply.
In 2019, Iqaluit experienced the dry year that had been cautioned against. Lake Geraldine, and its back-up source, the Apex River, sat at their lowest recorded levels – making the city’s water situation worse than the previous year’s emergency.
“The size of the city plays a role, but there’s definitely an environmental effect here that is not typical,” said Stantec civil engineer Matthew Follett at the time.
In the medium term, the city is permitted to pump from the Apex River until 2026. For the long term, the city is looking at two options as water sources – Unnamed Lake and the Sylvia Grinnell River.
By 2019, the city had repaired all known breaks in the water distribution system, and continues to replace valves and make minor repairs to an infrastructure system under stress due to aging and shifting permafrost.
Now, that already vulnerable system is contaminated, from a currently unknown source, putting even more strain on residents still coping with a global pandemic.
Water crises seem to be closer to the norm than the exception in the territory. Kinngait has had problems with water delivery since at least 2017. Baker Lake had 10,000 litres of fuel spill close to its water supply in March — a protective berm was repaired and groundwater and soil are being remediated. That work is expected to continue into 2023. Most communities have boil water advisories issued each year with spring melts.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami stated in its 2020 report Access to Drinking Water in Inuit Nunangat that “86.8 per cent of water treatment facilities and 84.4 per cent of water pump stations are reported to be in poor condition,” adding that these systems are often decades older than expected lifespans.
Over the past five years, the Department of Community and Government Services has spent close to $90 million building new water treatment plants in Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Arviat, Naujaat, Coral Harbour, Iglulik, Pangnirtung and Resolute Bay. Whale Cove is slated to have a new treatment plant in 2024.
As upsetting as this current drinking water crisis is, it presents a pivotal moment for the City of Iqaluit to push for federal and territorial assistance for the $64 million new reservoir, approved by council in December of last year.
Beyond that, continued investment by the federal government is desperately needed so we don’t have several Nunavut communities relying on flown-in water to meet their most basic needs.