Contaminated drinking water in Iqaluit causes crisis | Polarjournal
The approximately 7,800 inhabitants of Iqaluit, the capital of the territory of Nunavut, normally get their drinking water from a lake above the city. But since early October, residents have complained of an unusual smell of gasoline in the water. Now petroleum product residues has been discovered. Image: C. Soloviev via Wiki Commons

Life in Arctic regions is not easy, especially when it comes to providing for the residents in the communities. Because the long distances and the climatic and geographical conditions pose a real challenge in terms of logistics. When the drinking water supply, which is normally secured on site, fails and winter is just around the corner, the whole thing becomes a Herculean task. Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, is facing exactly this for more than a week now. Because their drinking water is contaminated with fuel.

Where the contamination of the water comes from is not clear. Investigations by local authorities and experts have not yielded any results as far as we know at present (21 October). Cleaning, which was supposed to have taken place via flushing the pipes this week, has been postponed until next week. The authorities of the municipality plan to provide information on the further course of action next Monday, according to a press release. The authorities and experts have stated that there was no immediate danger to the health of people who had already drunk water. Nevertheless, it is still not recommended to consume the water from the system.

From October 12, the population was called upon to stop drinking water from the taps and authorities began to distribute water to the inhabitants via bottles and water trucks.

As early as the beginning of October, authorities received reports that the drinking water had a “peculiar, fuel-like” odor. Via social media, residents also complained of headaches and dizziness after consuming water. But quality measurements by city authorities showed no evidence of pollution. Mayor Kenny Bell gave the all-clear at the time. But complaints continued to grow and a week later, strong odors were detected coming from the tanks where the water treatment chemicals were stored.

A warning to stop consuming the water from the pipes was issued and a state of emergency was declared over the city. Water was pumped by tankers from surrounding rivers and distributed, water bottles were flown up from the south. Numerous pictures and videos were posted on social media showing people everywhere waiting to receive water. Residents who did not want to join the queues at the distribution centres fetched their water from the rivers. It is not yet clear how long this crisis will last.

PolarJournal had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Corine Wood-Donnelly, who is currently living in Iqaluit while working on a research project. She says that the situation was tense at the beginning because hardly anyone had enough containers to carry water. But in the meantime, she says, water collection has been built into his daily rhythm. But as temperatures continue to drop, things could get worse as the two rivers from which drinking water is drawn slowly freeze over. “This is likely to become a problem if the crisis could last longer.”

Iqaluit is located on Frobisher Bay in Nunavut. Surrounding the city are several freshwater lakes and the Sylvia Grinnell River (left). Most of the drinking water, however, comes from Geraldine Lake. Map: Michael Wenger via Google Earth

Iqaluit has been struggling with water supply problems for years. This is because the infrastructure is reaching its capacity limits due to the population growth in recent years. Last year it was decided to extend measures to secure the water supply and to evaluate surrounding lakes as possible sources of water. Although there are numerous small and larger lakes in the area and also rivers such as the Sylvia Grinnell River, the supply is not so easy. The water quality must meet the standard to be declared as drinking water. This is currently achieved by adding chlorine. In the current situation, residents have been asked to boil the water they are given before consuming it. In addition, there are quantity restrictions for the households and accordingly the distributed water should only be used for consumption. According to Dr Wood-Donnelly, other limitations are not currently noticeable, such as on hygiene or washing up. “In between, you smell something when you wash,” she explains. “But for now, it works.”

Although the water supply measures are only temporary, they cause another problem: plastic waste. Since the water is transported to Iqaluit in bottles, those plastic bottles then stay here, she says. “That means a massive increase in plastic waste in the public landfill.” She said efforts are underway to organize a dumpster for disposal, but nothing more is clear at this time. “Besides, when people use water from the river, they have to boil it, which requires more energy. And this comes in the form of burning more diesel for the generators.” In her opinion, the water debate will continue even after the end of the crisis.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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