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Iqaluit water contamination crisis exposes vulnerabilities across Canada 

After Iqaluit residents reported a strong fuel smell in their tap water for more than 10 days, the government of Nunavut declared a local state of emergency on October 15th due to contamination of the city’s main water supply. The community of more than 8,000 is currently receiving air shipments of tens of thousands of litres of bottled water while the city searches for the source of the contamination.

A lab in Southern Canada is currently testing water samples and expects to report on its findings in the coming days.

In an interview with CTV News, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell said he suspects that the city’s water facility may have been damaged due to climate change. “I would say maybe the permafrost melted and our facility may have moved,” he said.

Bell also blamed the city’s small and crumbling water infrastructure. The water reservoirs and treatment facilities are both too small for the population and the piping needs repair, he said. 

“We have some of the most pristine water in the world up here, but … the City of Iqaluit has been under a water crisis for about five years,” he added. 

The emerging crisis with Iqaluit’s municipal water supply reveals the vulnerabilities faced by many communities across Canada due to the lack of funding for necessary repairs and an absence of national water standards. And extreme weather events due to climate change are already making matters worse.

Federal Funding for Water Infrastructure 

Decades of cuts in infrastructure funding, coupled with a constant downloading of costs to municipal governments, has resulted in a “municipal infrastructure deficit.” The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that municipalities need more than $50 billion to upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure in poor or very poor conditions. Iqaluit is a prime example of a growing community saddled with aging infrastructure that cannot even provide reliable service to its existing population, despite paying some of the highest water rates in the country.

Federal investments in water infrastructure, especially public funding like the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, must be renewed and expanded, while false solutions that promote privatization and Public-Private Partnerships (P3s), as offered by the Canada Infrastructure Bank, must be rejected.    

National Standards for Drinking Water 

Canada does not have legally enforceable drinking water standards. Instead, the federal government sets “guidelines” in consultation with the provinces and territories. This has resulted in many of these guidelines being weaker than actual standards set in place like the United States and Europe. Creating a national standard for drinking water would reduce the undue influence of economic interests and promote stronger regulations based on the health impacts of pollutants.

The Human Right to Water  

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly confirmed the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. This internationally binding resolution must be recognized at every level of government. This will ensure that all people living in Canada, without discrimination, are legally entitled to safe, clean drinking water, as well as water for sanitation, in sufficient quantities, and that inequalities in access are addressed immediately. The recognition of water as a human right gives communities lacking access to clean drinking water a legal tool to exercise this right and provides legal recourse if a water source is damaged by industrial activities or neglect.

The crisis in Iqaluit foreshadows what we can expect to see in the future if we don’t take bold steps to correct decades of short-sighted governance in Canada. The Council of Canadians has long advocated for the modernization of federal water policies. As part of the Council of Canadians’ Blue Communities Project, more than 70 municipalities have affirmed the rights to water and sanitation and committed to keeping water infrastructure publicly owned. It is time for the federal government to act.