Source: Sebastian Kasten, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The city of Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, has been under a state of emergency since Oct. 12 due to contamination of their water supply. Residents started to voice growing concerns over foul-smelling tap water as early as Oct 2. On Oct 4, the city inspected the water treatment plant, taking samples from half a dozen areas. They claimed that all the tests came back clean and met national standards.

However, on Oct. 12 city staff detected a “strong smell of gas” from the containment used to hold chemicals for treating water. The city released a second statement assuring the population that the water met national standards, while also announcing a decision to hire an engineering firm to investigate. Later the same day the mayor told residents to not drink the city’s tap water, but assured them that it was safe to bathe in—though pregnant women should avoid doing so. By the end of the day, the city declared a state of emergency during a special council session. “We suspect that there is petroleum—some type of petroleum product—that has entered the water system,” senior administrative officer Amy Elgersma said. Still on Oct. 12 the city would go to the length of opening filling stations at the library and Arctic Winter Games Arena to distribute water trucked in from the nearby Sylvia Grinnell River, where a number of Iqalummiut go to the river to fill jugs themselves.

Since then the situation in Iqaluit has only continued to deteriorate, affecting all aspects of life in the northern city. This can be seen most clearly in the effects on health institutions in the community. Qikiqtani General Hospital, the only hospital in the city, was unable to wash or sterilize their equipment and for eight days had to cancel all operations but the most dire. Many patients were forced to medevac to Ottawa—and as Deputy Mayor Janet Pitsiulaaq explained in a twitter thread, a single medevac can cost over $40,000. The situation has gone on to gain Canada-wide attention, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Nunavut NDP MP Kiru Idlout issuing a public statement calling for the federal government to respond to the state of emergency. The statement further explained that having access to clean water is a common issue in rural and remote communities, especially affecting northern areas and Indigenous communities. On Oct. 22 the federal government responded to the crisis by sending the Canadian Armed Forces to help provide clean drinking water.

It is important here to note that, as said in the NDP statement, it is common in the more isolated regions of Canada to not have access to clean drinking water, and most acutely for Indigenous populations. Many reserves across the country face chronic water issues. One of the most drastic situations is that of Neskantaga First Nation in Northern Ontario, which has faced a boil-water advisory for more than 25 years. Nor is this the first time Iqaluit has faced a water emergency, this being the third in four years. The others occurred in 2018 and 2019 respectively, when the reservoir at Lake Geraldine hit historic lows.

But the situation facing Iqaluit today is far worse. Investigations into how the fuel contaminated the water supply have led to some disturbing conclusions so far. First and foremost, the massive lack of infrastructure investment in the North has led to the degradation of important pipe systems in Iqaluit that were originally installed in the 1970s. This is compounded by the effects of global warming, which are particularly dramatic in the Arctic region. As temperatures continue to rise, Arctic permafrost melts, leading to the warping and cracking of pipes and other important infrastructure, making it far more likely that water will be contaminated. As for the source of the fuel contamination itself, it is currently believed that a “suspended tank” adjacent to the water treatment facility has “rusted out”, causing what officials are referring to as a “historic fuel spill” that possibly occurred as early as the 1960s. The fuel from this tank penetrated into the ground and groundwater, further reaching the city’s water supply through cracks in the piping.

“We don’t quite know … the purpose of that tank, but it is part of our ongoing investigation to look into the historic uses and how it got there and why it’s there,” said Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma. She elaborated, saying that it is hard to tell when the spill happened, but that it is a historical spill that is being cleaned up “as we speak, and [is] contained.” A firm has been hired to manage and remove the spill. The crisis has already cost the city $1.5 million.

The actions, or rather inactions of the city’s leadership have taken their toll on the health and lives of the working people. The population of more than 7,500—among them the highest population of Inuit in any city in Canada, with more than 3,900—are being forced into life-threatening conditions just as winter begins. The situation is particularly difficult for Iqaluit’s poorer residents, especially those who don’t have a means of transportation to fetch water from the river after supplies of bottled water were depleted. This has aggravated the already simmering mistrust of the people towards the government, as they rightly ask how this could be allowed to happen and why information about the state of the water supply was not more forthcoming. We must ask, how can we assure that a crisis like this never occurs again—not just in Iqaluit, but in all communities facing such disasters?

We must do whatever is necessary to end the boil-water advisories where people are directly affected, and raise the standards of infrastructure in isolated and northern communities. For years the government in Ottawa has promised to work with Indigenous and isolated communities to end the boil-water advisories, but they have neglected this responsibility since their election in 2015. Meanwhile, on a local level, the government of Iqaluit first denied the existence of any problem, despite the assertions of residents. After seven weeks, the city is still struggling to distribute clean water and end the state of emergency. This catastrophe has been the result of failure at each and every level of government. The issue of water quality, and the growing infrastructure gap have been pressing for decades, and little if anything has been done. Why is this? The governments of the capitalists have no interest in investing in small communities they see only as obstacles to the capitalist exploitation of land and resources. 

Only a system of democratic workers’ control, freed from the profit motive and based on meeting human need, will ever truly be able to find long-lasting solutions. For a better, freer world, a world where life-giving water is not a luxury but a right, we must work together for a planned economy to improve the lives of people everywhere.