Skip to main content
opinion

Jane George is a journalist and broadcaster in Northern Canada.

City of Iqaluit employee Matthew Norman records house numbers of residents to ensure fair distribution of bottled water.CASEY LESSARD/Reuters

If you’ve been focused on truck convoys, COVID-19 and now, understandably, Ukraine, you may not have realized that Nunavut’s capital remains frozen in a state of crisis.

To change that, the Government of Canada must step up and write a check for at least $180-million, the estimated lowball cost to bring the city’s water system back to safe functionality.

Iqaluit’s ongoing water woes are nearing their sixth month – the city first said that water coming out of the taps wasn’t safe to drink due to the suspected presence of hydrocarbons in October. Since then, nearly 8,000 residents have endured the darkest and coldest time of the year, often under a pandemic lockdown, with no trusted water supply.

After learning their water was undrinkable, residents had two options: those with money and vehicles could buy expensive bottled water, or people could fetch water from the river. Soon, costly airlifts of water led to free city-wide distribution. People with space in their homes made stockpiles of bottled water. Meanwhile, the military set up a temporary water-purification plant that suffered operational issues of its own, while the city worked on installing a bypass system for its water treatment plant. In mid-December, a do-not-consume order was lifted when Iqaluit residents were told their water was okay.

In January, however, residents once more began to smell and see an oily film in their water, reporting odours of heavy chlorine and fuel coming out of their taps. Many residents again took trips to the river or bought expensive water from the stores. On social media, those without vehicles or money posted pleas for help. The tepid response from municipal and territorial government officials didn’t allay the public’s fears and concerns. A boil-water advisory remained in place into late January, despite a Jan. 17 statement from Mayor Kenny Bell that “the water is technically safe.”

It’s now March, and people in Iqaluit say they’re still unsure about their water – whether they should drink it, bathe in it, or even if any will flow from their taps. On Tuesday last week, the taps in Iqaluit went dry again, causing schools, businesses and offices to close down for the morning to enable the replacement of some valves. That was followed by yet another boil-water advisory.

Meanwhile, human health has been impacted. A few days after the first October edict, I developed itchy blotches on my torso and extremities – an allergic reaction to bathing in the municipally-sourced water in Iqaluit. It had probably been over-chlorinated after the treatment plant was shut down, but my initial reaction has since morphed into an autoimmune condition called urticaria. With a mega-dose of antihistamines, it’s more or less under control with side effects of fatigue and ringing in my ears.

Residents have shared other symptoms on social media, including rashes, dry and peeling skin, stomach problems and headaches. One woman told me she dreamt of leaving Iqaluit for Ottawa so she could stop bathing her baby in bottled water.

The larger solution to Iqaluit’s water emergency needs to involve a lot of money and engineers. A public inquiry, sought by local lawyers and others, must also uncover exactly what happened to Iqaluit’s water system, instead of the third-party review proposed by the territorial government.

This public inquiry could look at Iqaluit’s history: how it became a capital city, doubling in size in a few years, and why the continued development of houses and buildings for government offices wasn’t accompanied by foundational infrastructure. Water pipes were buried in permafrost (thought to be like concrete, a solid and stable environment) but with climate change, city pipes are breaking, including ones buried more than 20 feet deep in an Iqaluit subdivision.

While Ottawa has earmarked millions of dollars for climate change initiatives, the money set aside for municipalities is intended to help them reduce greenhouse gases, which doesn’t help the City of Iqaluit address permafrost melt or other related issues.

Iqaluit also suffers from a high number of transient staff. Many people from outside Nunavut come to the city to work for a few years, and inherit a wide and deep set of problems. They are always operating in either catch-up or crisis mode. The best ones can usually apply Band-Aid fixes, but the MacGyver-ing never lasts long and costs more in the long run.

Last week, Canadian North airlines launched a new summer route from Iqaluit to Toronto, but here’s a bit of advice: if you come to Iqaluit, it’s better to bring along your own drinking water.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.