SOS to Ottawa: Nunavut capital needs help keeping its water flowing

“We need to be doing something now so we avert a crisis”

Raw sewage runs from under a row of houses in Iqaluit towards the street. It’s one of two places in the city last week where this problem, since cleaned up, could be seen. (Photo by Jane George)

By Jane George

Iqaluit needs help now to deliver clean drinking water and collect sewage from its growing population of roughly 8,000 residents.

As Nunavut celebrated the territory’s 20th anniversary on April 1, you could spot streams and pools of sewage throughout the capital city, caused by broken or frozen pipes.

In the weeks leading up to the big celebration, many residents had no water service and several neighbourhoods remained on boil-water advisories as heavy equipment operators struggled to dig deep into the frozen ground to get at, and then repair, faulty water mains.

Running the taps afterwards could result in dirty, particle-filled water that looked like urine.

“We need to be doing something now so we avert a crisis,” Iqaluit Mayor Madeline Redfern said about the deteriorating state of the city’s water and sewage system.

The past month or so has been marked by at least 10 disruptions in service and as many boil-water advisories around Iqaluit.

A broken water main on a busy road in Iqaluit creates a sheet of freezing slush and then ice. (Photo by Jane George)

In one instance, in a hard-to-overlook sign that something was wrong, a water main burst downtown and spewed water over a central thoroughfare, where it immediately froze into a dangerously slippery surface.

Would you want your children to play here? A pool of sewage lies in front of an Iqaluit house last week. It’s since been scraped away while heavy machinery operators on the other side of the street dig deep to try to find the source of the blockage. (Photo by Jane George)

And, in at least two places just last week, you could see brown sewage on the ground, close to homes, roads and places where children play.

This summer might not be better: last August, half of Iqaluit faced boil water advisories due to repairs and water shortages.

The city doesn’t qualify for federal emergency disaster relief money because there’s a minimum threshold of $20 million in damages to qualify, Redfern said.

“Our need is smaller,” she said. “We need Ottawa to understand our immediate requirements.”

Iqaluit’s ongoing problems with buried pipes are partly due to climate change, which is affecting permafrost and the stability of the deeply buried mains, making them more subject to freezing.

That won’t go away: a federal government climate change report said last week that future warming of permafrost will continue, with the area of Canada underlain by deep permafrost projected to decline by up to 20 per cent by 2090, relative to 1990.

Iqaluit is also bracing for the possibility of future water shortages—a problem compounded in the past by leaky water pipes.

Little snowfall this winter could result in a water shortage later in the year, Redfern said.

Meanwhile, the city’s storm-water drainage system is no longer able to support changes in precipitation brought by climate change.

Although there is $2 billion in federal government money earmarked for climate change adaption and mitigation that Iqaluit would like to tap into, the programs are too focused on sea ice and snow and “not where people are living,” Redfern said.

To pay for the water and sewage repairs, tallying up to well more than $300,000 so far this year, the city is digging into money from the federal gas tax fund, Redfern said, but that’s a finite amount of money for a growing problem.

Today’s problems are also a product, in part, of how Iqaluit grew, with its lack of “strategy, planning and resources,” as she put it.

To help cope in the future, the City of Iqaluit plans to create new development charges that would fund the replacement of an old sewage line that’s currently at capacity.

The city estimates that it would cost $256 million to completely replace Iqaluit’s water and sewage systems.

A targeted replacement would cost $198 million. For a full replacement, $55.2 million would go to the piped water system, $58.2 million to the sewage collection system and $106.3 million to roads.

Redfern said the city is now preparing a business case to back its needs.

“It’s our priority,” she said.

The Government of Nunavut has also made water a priority, with $766 million in infrastructure over 10 years focused on water-related infrastructure.

It’s working on a potable water strategy as well.

“Every resident of Nunavut has the right to fresh potable water,” said Lorne Kusugak, the minister of community and government services, during the last sitting of the Nunavut legislature.

“Although Nunavut has some of the best quality freshwater sources in the whole world, we still run into cases where no drinkable water is available and this is due to many variable local factors.”

Sadly, Iqaluit isn’t alone with its water woes: it’s joined by other Nunavut communities, including Kugluktuk, Rankin Inlet, Igloolik, Sanikiluaq and Whale Cove, where water contamination issues have persisted for nearly five years.

Poor water quality is also public health issue in Nunavut: there have been recent health alerts from the GN about gastroenteritis and hepatitis A virus, which can be transmitted through ingestion of contaminated water or food.

Iqaluit’s problems are not necessarily more grave than those in other affected Nunavut communities. But they are more acute because they are on a larger scale and “this is where the development is taking place,” Redfern said.

They also have the capacity to disrupt the workings of the territory’s capital city. In March an elementary school had to send students home due to a water and sewage line break and recently the middle school closed due to sewage backup and students missed parts of two days in class.

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by Israel McArthur on

    Something I’ve never understood, and perhaps someone with greater knowledge could help me understand, why do Nunavut communities, and often times the Nunavut government, turn to Ottawa for assistance so often?

    Where are the municipal bonds, tax increases, the use of the commercial loan market for these sorts of infrastructure repairs. Ottawa is not responsible for municipal water. I have the same with housing, it is not a federal responsibility. Why hasn’t the territorial government taken more steps to raise funds? The water woes of Nunavut are not an unexpected act of God, and are within the remit of territorial responsibility.

    • Posted by Steve L on

      Municipal Bonds are really an American item and very rare in Canada. Remember that the Territories are just that territories and, thanks to Ottawa do not have complete control of their resources, especially the royalties generated from them, I remember from the 70’s when Yellowknife (Big Brother) would determine what we needed without a whole lot (read zero) consolation. Example: The big White Western fire truck that showed up on the beach one morning and the almost useless Rapid Response mini-truck during the runway repave. I mention that one because Ted Ostaffy and I took the truck out to the contractor’s weigh scale and discovered the truck was overweight without any one it. The big truck was a city vehicle, designed for access to hydrants, which YK had not got around to funding. And thanks for sticking me with a circulating pump that doubled my power bill.
      For as long as I can remember the Terrified Government could never get control of its finances, thanks to Ottawa, regardless of who was in power. My small village, population 250-ish has a $1M annual budget and other than gas tax grants, we are on our own.
      My assessment is the Territory has not, is not and will not ever be fiscally responsible. Not enough thought goes into projects. You would have a first rate water system, but no recreation center, with the multi-millions applied to priority projects.
      What do you want? What do you need? What can you afford? Standard municipal asset management questions.
      An example:

      • Posted by Israel McArthur on

        Very informative and helpful, thank you.

    • Posted by ask the source of the problems on

      Where? Why? Simple: the taxes are to pay for the 40 million dollar swimming pool, because someone wanted one.

      Why Ottawa? Naturally, when the growing population from the South want more comforts of the South, then call home.

  2. Posted by Northern Guy on

    “We need to be doing something now so we avert a crisis,”. LOL I don’t know how Mayor Redfern defines a “crisis” but in the minds of many, if not most, Iqalummiut, many of whom have faced days and sometimes weeks with neither water nor sewer, Iqaluit has been in a crisis for some time now! One need only peruse one of the many public Facebook sites to see the posts from innumerable frustrated homeowners and residents who have been dealing with chronic water and sewer issues for years. Homeowners who have exhausted their options regarding house insurance and are now uninsurable while the City continues to deny that there is any problem.

    • Posted by Malagania on

      It’s because for years this town has been mismanaged by incompetent people. That’s it that is all. And I got to watch.

  3. Posted by Really on

    You know how it is. If there is a problem here, it has to be blamed on the South, or the Feds. There is no sense of liability or accountability here, its always someone else fault, or some one else is to blame. The problems with he infrastructure here is not a new problem, it has been happening for years. Sure, its worse now, but anyone who lives here could see it coming. But instead, we miss treat the garbage, which causes more than it should, we build an aquatic center, which was a big deal for 6 months, put down and continue repairing old post on the sides of the road, and the list goes on and one. Here you are now with people, family’s, with kids, with no water, or yellow water, sewage running out from under houses, peoples heating vents filled up with sewage, people waiting weeks for repairs, while the city and real estate companies arguing who is going to flip the bill. People with kids, living in house surrounded and injected with sewage. This is not a City, This is not a municipality, I wouldn’t even call this a hamlet.

  4. Posted by Sam on

    Maybe it was a better idea to spend that money on the utilidor and badly needed basic infrastructure instead of that expensive swimming pool? Just saying.

  5. Posted by We the forgotten people on

    Isn’t it time for the government of Nunavut to hire an administrator to deliver water and sewage services. These are essential necessities of life and are not being provided adequately by the City of Iqaluit.

    What will it take for the government to act and no one seems to want to ask this question..

  6. Posted by pissed off on

    All these continuous problems 20 years on and yet we celebrated the 20th like there was no Problems and no Tomorrow !!!!
    Backslapping of the best kind, fireworks, etc…
    Name it we did it to put the people in a good mood. Say put them to sleep and unaware.


  7. Posted by Oh my! on

    A capital city in Canada or a third world country, it’s hard to tell which. What a disgrace this is. April 1st is an appropriate date for the creation of Nunavut because it is a great big joke.

    How many billions of tax payer $’s subsidize Nunavut and its 38,000 residents? What maybe a million per person! What a colossal mess.

  8. Posted by 20-Year Plan on

    10 years ago, I admit to feeling a bit awkward when I would tell people that any decision to purchase property (anywhere in the world) should take into account the potential for sea-level rise; now, that caution feels validated. In that same vein, how about instead of a potential stop-gap measure, Nunavut considers (with Federal funding) embarking on a serious review of legitimate dangers related to climate change. Send a team of experts to every community, to assess infrastructure, what can and cannot be done to guard against permafrost melt and sea level rise in how it may affect water supplies, lagoons, runways- Even every single dwelling, which is built on stilts and pads which, I assume, rely on permafrost to prevent utter collapse. It could very well be that many areas of Nunavut will simply not be habitable in 20-30 years. I pray that I am just overly enthusiastic, but if my concerns are valid, we’d be better off to start planning now, than when the first berms start breaking and the first houses start sliding.

  9. Posted by Eski on

    that’s just Spring Water.

  10. Posted by Colin on

    Ground with permafrost below, as in much of Iqaluit, is always subject to heaving as a result of a weather event, and unpredictable weather events are common enough regardless of climate change. In the 1930s mines in Yellowknife solved the problem of running water and sewer pipes over rocks and heaving ground. Well insulated “utilidors” contained the services above ground and were buried only underneath roads. It was then simple and inexpensive to fix a problem in the event of a break.

  11. Posted by Mayor can you tweet for help on

    No Iqaluit MLA has raised it to push for help for their constituents. The Mayor has become rather silent. In a good functioning city, there would be changes put in place to prevent a simple power surge from cutting off water to its citizens. Just such a wish washy place we live in.

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