Almost 50 Aboriginal Communities Have Lost Access to Safe Drinking Water Since 2016

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Jessy Sabourin and her sisters live in the community of Pic Mobert. They have been able to use water from the tap for only a year.
A reverse osmosis membrane was used to split Saddle Lake water into a waste stream (left) and a pure water stream (right). In most water treatment plants, the two buckets are mixed and colour is frequently bleached out using chlorine.

(This is a translation of an article written by The Canadian Press in French. The original French article was published July 25, 2017 and can be found at: http://ici.radio-canada.ca/espaces-autochtones/a-la-une/document/nouvell...)

The Canadian Press

While Ottawa is committed to making drinking water available to all of Canada's Aboriginal water systems by 2021, no less than 47 new drinking water advisories have been put in place since 2016, including 27 since the beginning of the year, according to data obtained by The Canadian Press.

This situation leads several observers to believe that the Trudeau administration is likely not to meet its target of lifting all long-term advisories on systems funded by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) by 2021, despite investments of $1.8 billion over the next five years.

"The government's objective is not realistic with the initiatives currently in place. I do not see how we can get rid of boil water advisories, because with all the new notices, it's one step forward, two steps back," says Robert Pratt, a plant operator of the Aboriginal community of George Gordon, Saskatchewan.

Unless there is a concerted effort to really solve the problem, nothing will change.
Robert Pratt, an operator of a water treatment plant in Saskatchewan

At present, no fewer than 152 drinking water advisory (DWA) notices exist in 104 Aboriginal communities across the country, according to the latest data from Health Canada and the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), a British Columbia organization responsible for counting DWAs in the province.

Therefore, the 47 boil-water advisories in place since 2016 represent close to one-third of all DWAs currently in use in Canada.

Advisories are categorized according to the time elapsed since their publication. After one year, a DWA is considered to be "long-term", according to Health Canada.

These long-term notices include the case of Sachigo Lake, a small remote community in Ontario located nearly 650 kilometers northwest of Thunder Bay.

"One of the reservoirs of the [water treatment plant] has been leaking for about five years. It had not been a problem until recently, but the technicians decided it was more prudent to issue a boil water advisory until the leak could be repaired,” says the manager of public works for the community, Samuel Tait.

The DWA was first issued on June 7, 2016. Mr. Tait reported that the Council had requested funding to repair the leak on December 31, a request that has yet to be answered.

The water problems of the isolated community of Northwestern Ontario do not end there. "Sometimes during the winter, the lake from which we are supplied with water freezes almost to the bottom and we run out of water for the plant. This happened at least five times. We have to make holes in the lake and pump water with rubber hoses to fill our tank, which forces us to issue a boil water advisory," says the director.

According to the Director of Public Works Operations, the crux of the problem is still funding.

We talked to those responsible for infrastructure funding and they know that our lake is shallow. They are telling us that it is work that could be done, but it would be too expensive to repair.
Samuel Tait, Manager of Public Works Operations for the Sachigo Lake Community, Ontario

The operator of the Pic Mobert community water treatment plant, Dave Craig, knows the case of Sachigo Lake since he trained technicians in the 1990s. After working to train the communities of Northwestern Ontario and James Bay, he notes that these isolated communities are often left to their own devices.

"As soon as the engineers leave after the construction of the plant, forget it if you want to get them back in case of a problem, even with a warrantee," he remarked.

An infrastructure problem

Many of the experts consulted by The Canadian Press believe that the main cause of the large number of new boil water advisories is the lack of reliability of facilities in the communities.

"When a plant is finally completed, some valves, for example, can no longer be repaired because they have been discontinued," says Robert Pratt, who has worked in some thirty water treatment plants over the course of his career.

We do not really have a say on the equipment we are given. It is as if we were told not to complain too much because we did not have to pay.
Robert Pratt, an operator of a water treatment plant in Saskatchewan

Dave Craig, for his part, believes that older plants, such as the one in Sachigo Lake, which is about twenty years old, also explain the emergence of new advisories.

"It’s important to keep in mind that infrastructure in some remote communities dating back 15 or 20 years has often been poorly maintained over the years because there are no experts nearby. Many of these old plants are the source of boil water advisories," says Craig.

Infrastructure reliability problems are not limited to older plants. Pic Mobert, 279 kilometers east of Thunder Bay, is one of 26 communities where a long-term advisory has been lifted by the government since the Liberals came to power. A water treatment plant was inaugurated in June 2016, ending a notice in force for six years.

Dave Craig, however, raises troubling problems, even if the plant is brand new. "There's a leak in our distribution system," says Craig. “That should be covered by the warranty, but the contractor who was here never finished the job. So he must come back eventually, but I do not know yet how it will resolve itself," he deplores, adding that the situation deeply frustrates him.

The operator says that this leak forces him to use about 20 times more water than he needs in order to ensure sufficient pressure in the pipes.

"It also uses equipment much faster, and we must not overwork our infrastructure. If it gets worse, we may have to shut down the water treatment plant, so we would have to issue a new boil water advisory," he said.

Hans Peterson, a specialist who worked with the community of Yellow Quill, Saskatchewan, to lift the boil water advisory in the community from 1995 to 2004, states that in his opinion the processes which are attempted in First Nations communities are often poorly adapted for the task which needs to be accomplished, as he notes that water sources are often of lower quality near Indigenous communities.

"When you have a source where water quality is ten times worse, a simple calculation makes it possible to conclude that it would be necessary to add 10 times more chemicals to treat it like in the city," he explains.

It is ridiculous to think that we can add as many chemicals to produce drinking water. We have to rethink how we do it, because the excessive addition of chemicals will result in new boil water advisories.
Hans Peterson, Water Sanitation Specialist at Safe Drinking Water Foundation

$1.8 billion over five years

The government of Justin Trudeau wants to lift all long-term notices for systems funded by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) by 2021. Ottawa intends to meet this target through a five-year plan developed in 2016 with investments of $1.8 billion.

"We are also preventing the emergence of new advisories with our investments," said Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Carolyn Bennett, citing the case of British Columbia where she said "no new notice [that poses a risk of becoming long-term] has been issued," despite the six notices in force in the province since the beginning of 2017.

Since the Liberals came to power, 26 long-term advisories have been lifted in 22 communities across the country. This progress makes Minister Bennett believe that she will be able to reach her goal by 2021.

"We still have 70 DWAs [long-term affecting INAC-funded systems] to be lifted and we are hopeful that we will do so within five years, even though new opinions are being issued because [affected systems] receive financing," says the minister.

Some observers, however, do not share this optimism. "I do not think the goal is realistic. The government must begin by re-examining the processes and technology it uses and adopting the right methods," said Hans Peterson, one of the people behind the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.

Aboriginal Engagement

However, accountability is not entirely on the shoulders of the government, says Steve Hrudey, Professor Emeritus in Analytical and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Alberta, who in 2006 co-authored a report on First Nations water quality alongside a panel of experts.

The government can have the best intentions in the world and unlimited resources, but if there is no concrete commitment on the part of the communities to resolve the situation, nothing will happen.
Steve Hrudey, Professor of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Alberta

While he also believes that changes should be made in local Aboriginal governments, such as adding water treatment experts to tribal councils, Dave Craig remains critical of the money allocated.

This is the view of most experts consulted by The Canadian Press, especially those from First Nations: Ottawa money will be in vain if it is not invested properly.

"It's like many things: you cannot solve the problem simply by throwing money at it," Dave Craig summarizes.

This article has been brought to you by Safe Drinking Water Team.