© Hillary White

Water security in a warming Arctic

7 June 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sustainable Development Goals. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

For northern Indigenous Peoples, hunting, fishing, transportation and relational networks across the circumpolar Arctic are built on generations of individual and collective knowledge of water. This knowledge and spiritual connection with water, weather and the environment has sustained a rich and long cultural history. But as ANDREW MEDEIROS notes, recent environ­mental changes and volatile weather conditions are strain­ing their ability to adapt.

DURING THE MELT-WATER SEASON, you might get the impression that the Arctic is characterized by seemingly limitless expanses of wetlands. What many people don’t realize is that a number of Arctic regions are considered polar deserts, and actually receive very low amounts of precipitation—and these must sustain water levels through the dry summer months.

But environmental changes have caused the melt-water season to start earlier, and a key consequence has been the desiccation of northern wetlands. This has affected the area’s ecosystems and created extreme vulnerability for northern communities that rely on a sole source of surface water for their municipal supply.

Lakes and streams that have evaporated dry are a stark and shocking — but increasingly common - sight in the Arctic. For residents, climate-driven water shortages are amplified by limited technical and financial capacity, inadequate and aging infrastructure, growing populations, and a legacy of reliance on short-term engineered solutions that often fail.

The stakes are high when a population depends on a single water source. For example, in 2015, the hamlet of Igloolik in Nunavut, Canada suffered an unusually dry summer followed by an unusually harsh winter. The lack of precipitation and prolonged ice cover caused the community to completely exhaust its freshwater supply. Left without options, it tapped into the nearest alternative water source, which had never been properly tested to see if it was safe to drink. The community has since upgraded its reservoir capacity.

Nunavut is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that has no freshwater strategy or climate change adaptation plan for its water resources. This lack of planning has left the territory unprepared for a water crisis that is already occurring.

Faced with outdated, inadequate infrastructure, or in some places, a total lack of basic infrastructure, northern peoples have long preferred natural water sources to municipal water supplies—usually local streams or rivers, since running water is less likely to contain pathogens. But warming temperatures tend to increase the presence of microbes in freshwater. Ironically, this preference for running water has lead outside consultants to recommend replenishing the main source of municipal water with water from local streams. Known as alternative replenishment, this process often involves pumping water from the nearest river to the municipal reservoir during the summer.

For Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, this “solution” was a costly disaster. In 2014, a consulting firm recommended the alternative replenishment of the community water source, Lake Nippisar, from the nearby Char River outlet of Landing Lake. This choice of location struck both researchers and local residents as bizarre since the area had been used to land planes for almost 50 years, and oil drums had once been dumped in the lake’s basin. In fact, the dock of Landing Lake is built out of used oil drums. Worse, the flow of the Char River outlet had already experienced complete desiccation in recent years.

Despite these obvious issues, the pumphouse for the replenishment of Lake Nippisar was built in 2016. Now that it has “realized” Rankin Inlet’s water supply is still inadequate, the government of Nunavut is seeking proposals to upgrade it.

Ultimately, water availability in the north is likely to become even more variable and uncertain in the future. Paying more attention to water security as a priority for growth and development in the north may help us to better understand how freshwater ecosystems will respond as the Earth warms. It may also improve the lives of northern peoples, who are on the frontlines of environmental change.

The Arctic is often thought of as the “barometer of the nation.” We may soon find that water security is an issue for locations much further south. The question is: Are we ready?

ANDREW MEDEIROS is a freshwater ecologist and northern research fellow at York University in Toronto, Canada. His research focuses on quantitative water security.