Indigenous Water Crisis

Indigenous Water Crisis

Many First Nations communities across Canada do not have access to clean drinking water. People living on First Nations reserves are 90x more likely to not have access to running water. Many factors contribute to the crisis, including geographic location, underfunding, and past policies.

The root cause of the water crisis exists partially as a result of colonialism and forced relocation of many Indigenous communities. Most First Nations water systems are small and some are in remote communities that are not always accessible. These circumstances present unique challenges, such as relying on aging distribution systems, managing high capital and operating costs, lacking access to funding, finding and retaining qualified water system operators, and getting supplies and materials. Overall, small systems have been found to be more vulnerable to drinking water contamination and outbreaks compared to large municipal systems.

Canada’s history of mistreating and ignoring Indigenous peoples’ crises has a huge impact on their treatment of this crisis. Currently, people living on first nations reserves are 90x more likely to be without running water. This means that no building on the land is receiving a drop of water, not the nursing station or schools. Additionally, accessible water is often contaminated, hard to access, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems. This puts indigenous people at a health risk, the number of water-borne infections in reserves are 26x higher than average.

Boil Water Advisory: water is questionable and potentially contaminated with e.coli. Must be boiled for at least one minute to be used safely.

Do Not Consume: water contains contaminants (i.e. lead) that cannot be removed by boiling.

Do Not Use: water poses a health risk and pollutants cannot be removed by boiling. Exposure can cause skin, eye, or nose irritations.

Currently, there are 99 drinking water advisories.

  • 73% of water advisories are on public water systems
  • 85% are on boil water advisories
  • Bearskin Lake has been under a do not consume advisory for over 15 years
  • 62% of water advisories last over a year
  • Neskantaga First Nations reserve has been waiting for a water treatment update for over 25 years

In Neskantaga, a boil water advisory was issued in the reserve to further prevent the improper disinfection and treatment of the water supply and a community outbreak of water-borne illness. The lack of clean and drinkable drinking water can lead to the contraction of illnesses such as:

  • Cancer
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin infections
  • Influenza
  • Whooping cough
  • Pneumonia

When water cannot be boiled, the community must purchase commercially packaged water, which can be a financial burden. They need to purchase enough water to shower, to drink, to eat, wash their dishes and clothes, and more. Poor water quality can also affect food

In the cases of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, their water supply was contaminated after a chemical plant dumped 9000 kilograms of mercury into the river. The mercury contaminated the water and poisoned the fish, which was a staple in the community’s diet. Due to the generational impacts of mercury poisoning, even 70 years later, these communities suffer physical and mental impacts including visual impairment and disturbances, insomnia, exhaustion, numbness in the limbs, emotional and motivational disturbances, and depression. After 5 years, the Grassy Narrows boil-water advisory has been lifted. To this day, the Wabaseemoong advisory is yet to be lifted.

The continuing water crisis demonstrates the unresolved issues relating to inequity, justice, and institutional trends between the Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. Identifying, addressing, and implementing sustainable solutions to this water crisis in First Nations communities will require an expansion in the Canadian government’s reconciliation efforts to improve the standard of living in these reserves and ensure the basic human right of clean water.

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