Traditionalists may be most at risk of getting sick or infected

Warming threatens Nunavik water supply


Climate change may affect the quality of drinking water in Nunavik.

Many elders, raised on the land, say bottled or tap water makes their tea turn black. But in the warmer future, those who prefer fresh water to treated water may be most at risk of infection.

That's because as Nunavik's climate warms, animal migration patterns may change and this fresh water may become fouled and spread illness. These changes will particularly affect the three in 10 Nunavimmiut who drink fresh water from the region's lakes, creeks, rivers and from melt ice or snow in winter.

Environmental monitoring will be the key to keeping people healthy by maintaining good water quality, says research published in this month's Arctic journal, which discusses ways to manage climate change's impact on water supplies in Nunavik.

For their research, the public health experts looked at the drinking habits of people in Ivujivik, Puvirnituq, Umiujaq and Kangiqsujuaq, which might put them at greater risk of stomach illness in the context of climate change.

Nunavik's temperatures have been rising about .4 C a year since 1990, and previous studies have suggested this continued warming may lead to more contamination of water supplies and increase the number of gastrointestinal diseases.

To make sure water is drinkable, Nunavimmiut should do more monitoring, say public health researchers. This can be done by observing places where water is taken and conducting simple water quality tests.

Nunavik's public health health department has already advised people to boil lake and stream water or water from melted ice or snow for at least five minutes before drinking.

However, that's not likely to be popular advice. In Nunavik, many prefer fresh water to water brought by municipal water trucks because they don't have to observe the "boil water" advisories, which are often posted for tap water. People believe fresh water is safer to drink than tap water.

But "this traditional activity poses certain risks in a region with an abundant presence of migratory animals," warn the authors of "Drinking water and potential threats to human health in Nunavik," because of the increased danger of E-coli contamination.

The chances of E-coli infection to existing fresh water supplies may rise because changing temperatures are expected to alter animal migration patterns, bringing them closer to water supplies.

E-coli, which leaches off from animal or human feces, is linked to a variety of serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fever and, in the worst cases, organ failure and death. Children are most at risk because their immune systems are not fully developed.

In 2001, more than 2,500 people in Walkerton, Ont., became ill – and some died – from drinking water contaminated by E-coli bacteria. The bacteria entered the system after run-off from manure seeped into the water supply. Walkerton's water technicians didn't test for, correct or report the contamination.

The quality of fresh water may also deteriorate due to warming, as melting permafrost brings tiny micro-organisms, which cause disease, to the surface. Climate change may also revive illness-causing fungus and bacteria from wastewater deposits.

At the same time, more evaporation from heat may reduce the amount of water available in the region's lakes and streams. Rising sea levels could also introduce salt into the underground water supply, affecting wells.

Extreme weather resulting from climate change may also impact Nunavik's municipal water quality. Seven in 10 Nunavimmiut consume water from their domestic water tank, says the 2004 Qanuippitaa health survey.

Harsher winters or hotter summers may lead to more heating of water storage tanks, creating an ideal place for bacteria to multiply. In extreme winter weather, water treatment pipes may freeze, reducing water supplies – something which already happened not long ago in Puvirnituq.

The public health researchers found the fresh or "raw" water collected from streams and melt was generally of good quality. But the containers in which it was stored were often teeming with bacteria.

To make sure people stay healthy, they say outdoor faucets with chlorine-free purification systems should be installed for the use of elders or people with limited mobility.

The report also says Nunavik needs better wastewater and disposal facilities, increased testing at community water supplies and more public awareness about the risks in drinking fresh water and cleaning water containers regularly.

This summer, the Kativik Regional Government's municipal and public works department has projects underway to improve wastewater lagoons and water treatment plants, install heating cables to keep water pipes from freezing and offer on-site training for water plant operators.

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