The Arctic Under Pressure
© Andrea Pokrzywinski, CC, Flickr
Water (in)security
In rural Alaska, things are not as they seem

Many people have the impression that water is widely available to everyone in the Arctic. They would be surprised to learn that actually, rural Alaskan households often lack sufficient access to the water they require for their daily needs. Antonia Sohns explains.

ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, a household’s access to water can be affected by many factors. In the Arctic, these factors are likely to include ageing or deteriorated local or regional water infrastructure, decreased funding for new construction, climate change and the price of water.

Despite a number of well-intentioned government- and community-led initiatives, infrastructure challenges have affected Alaska’s water systems for more than 45 years. Due to the difficulties involved in building and maintaining water infrastructure in the north, Alaska ranks fiftieth among the United States for household connections to running water and sewer service.

© Craig McCaa (BLM), CC, Flickr.

More than 200 rural Alaskan communities have inadequate access to water.

The residents of these communities are primarily Alaska Native people. Due to the lack of in-home water, many households must haul water to their homes from central watering points or their preferred water resources. If a resident does not have a vehicle, four-wheeler or snowmobile, or cannot afford gasoline, they must depend on family, neighbours and friends to gather enough water for their personal use and consumption.

The range of water service between rural communities—and between rural and urban households—means different communities can pay very different
prices for water. The harder it is for people to get their water, the higher the price they pay. In the Highlands subdivision of Anchorage, the metered rate per 1,000 gallons (about 3,786 litres) of water was US$4.98 for a household in 2017. In comparison, in Eek, Alaska, home to just under 500 mostly Alaska Native residents, people continue to haul treated water from a community watering point, and they pay US$50 per 1,000 gallons.

In 2020, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation developed an indicator to help determine the affordability of residential rates for water and sewer utilities. The indicator produces a score to determine the level of burden based on water and sewer costs as a percentage of household income as well as on socioeconomic factors that affect affordability. Many remote Alaskan communities have a burden level that is considered high.

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VARIATIONS IN WATER ACCESS AND USE

Due to the costliness of water and the challenges involved in accessing it, rural Alaskan homes without piped water were found to use just 5.7 litres of water per person per day on average, far below the World Health Organization standard of 20 litres. In comparison, the average American resident uses 302 to 379 litres per day. Researchers have documented that before in-home water service became available in some Alaskan homes, mean household water use was 3.4 to 5.7 litres per person per day compared to 34.8 to 143.3 litres per person per day afterward.

Alaska has remarkably low water access even compared to other Arctic areas. In Nunavut, Canada, water use in 2014 was reported to be 110 litres per person per day, with a Canadian mandate to provide 90 litres. In the Northwest Territories, the Canadian mandate requires 90 litres of water per person per day if the water is trucked, 225 litres if piped. In Lapland, the Finnish mandate requires 120 litres per person per day. Norway’s mandate calls for 200 litres.

Like Alaska, Greenland and the Russian Arctic have comparatively low water access. All of these Arctic communities have been especially challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as global health professionals recommend increased handwashing and hygiene. Many households cannot easily increase their water use to protect themselves from the deadly virus.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF RESTRICTED ACCESS TO WATER

Recent research into the factors that contribute to water insecurity in Alaskan households has found that policymakers tend to focus more on the causes of water insecurity than on the consequences, even though the consequences can include people being forced to make trade-offs between water, food and energy, or suffering mental health impacts from the chronic stress of water insecurity.

Another notable consequence that has received more attention is the higher rate of waterborne disease: gastrointestinal infections are caused by poor water
quality, and water-washed diseases (such as skin and respiratory infections) are caused by inadequate water quantity. In rural Alaskan communities where fewer than 10 per cent of homes have piped water, infants are hospitalized for pneumonia and respiratory infection at a significantly higher rate.

With the impacts of the climate crisis manifesting more than twice as quickly in the Arctic as in the rest of the world, household water insecurity in the area is growing. Climate change can cause lakes and rivers to sink into thawing permafrost or change their courses. It can rupture pipes due to thawing and warping in warmer temperatures. Communities across the Arctic face new and growing water security challenges because of climate change.

Going forward, all Arctic nations must engage with one another to address water insecurity in their rural communities. By collaborating and sharing their experiences, they may learn from one another and identify best practices for designing more resilient water infrastructure and for creating policies that consider local residents’ perspectives and needs.

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ANTONIA SOHNS is a postdoctoral researcher with the Sustainable Futures Lab in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada.