Iqaluit’s Water Crisis, Inequalities and the Social Determinants of Health


Rachel Pizzonia, School of Health Studies, Western University

In the middle of vaccine rollouts and as the world begins to open up again, Canada is finding itself in the middle of another emergency crisis: The Iqaluit Water Crisis. Iqaluit is the capital city of the Canadian territory Nunavut and has a population of 7,740. The Iqaluit community has greatly seen the negative impacts of climate change on its environments, such as reductions in the sea ice cover, snow cover, glaciers, and the Greenland ice sheet are affecting climate and ecosystems throughout Inuit Nunangat (NOAA, 2013). These negative implications impact the social, economic, spiritual, and cultural conditions of the Iqalummiut peoples. As stated by the Nunavut Department of Health and Social Services: “if the health of the land is endangered, then so is the health of the people” (NDHSS, 2005). Climate change impacts the Inuit tradition and culture, which are critical determinants for women’s health (Healey, 2007). Engaging in traditional activities, such as sewing, spending time on the land, and going berry picking, strengthens Inuk women’s identity and mental health (Bunce, 2016).

Iqaluit has also experienced a high prevalence of food insecurity. Statistics Canada reported that 57% of Nunavut inhabitants experience food insecurity (Statistics Canada, 2018). There is an uneven food distribution across the provinces in Canada. Before this water crisis, nearly 70% of Inuit preschoolers resided in households rated as food insecure (Egeland, 2010).

In contrast, according to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), only 9% of all Canadian households reported moderate or severe food insecurity (CCHS, 2004). There are many systemic factors responsible for this food crisis in Nunavut, including dependence on out-of-province imports, increased levels of poverty, and an insufficient social assistance program that cannot secure the province’s food needs. Harsh realities for many Inuit families are the low availability and quality of market foods. Many Inuit communities have only one grocery store, and perishable foods must be shipped long distances. Consequently, healthy perishable foods are often costly, rotten, or damaged by the time they reach community stores.

In the Arctic, many Indigenous communities experience inequities in accessing safe drinking water, which is challenged by inadequate infrastructure, limited resources, environmental contamination, and climate change. (Martin et al. 2007) A survey found that 35.9% of all Inuit adults in Canada report contamination of their drinking water at certain times of the year, and 15.0% felt their drinking water at home was not safe for consumption (Garner et al., 2010). A recent study on the use of Giardia and Cryptosporidium in untreated surface water in Iqaluit, Canada, found 20.0% of samples tested positive for Giardia (n = 11) and 1.8% of samples tested positive for Cryptosporidium (n = 1) due to low water temperatures (1.1 to 6.7 °C) and low air temperatures (−0.1 to 4.5 °C) (Masina et al. 2019). On October 14, 2021, the Government of Nunavut declared a state of emergency to “ensure the necessary supports are available” for a water crisis in Iqaluit. Tests show “exceedingly high concentrations” of fuel in a water storage tank. Nunavut chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson advised a do-not-drink advisory while the city flushes its system. Children and pregnant mothers are advised not to bathe in or drink the water from their tap. As of October 21, Iqaluit is being forced to medevac patients out of the territory as its only hospital suffers the effects of the water contamination crisis (CTV News, 2021). Medevacing is an expensive process of moving patients to nearby provinces for medical procedures, costing $40,000 for each medevac.

While more research is needed to determine the contaminant in the water and the adverse medical impacts the contaminated water has on health, it is evident that there may be some deleterious effects the water can pose on the health of the inhabitants. Some Iqalummiuts report dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting after consuming tap water. Residents are paying about $9 for a litre of bottled water that most residents cannot afford, lining up for hours to purchase them. Many of the major grocery stores in Iqaluit are even sold out of both bottled water and plastic jugs. Climate change greatly affects the prevalence of water-borne diseases. There is a high possibility that it is at fault for this recent crisis. As Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell explained: “We had a very warm and wet summer here in Iqaluit, and of course, as climate change has been impacting us greatly, I would say maybe the permafrost melted, and our facility may have moved” (CTV News, 2021).

As of October 27, we now know the cause of the drinking water contamination is from historical fuel spills. While this news is of concern and alarming, we need to do more to ensure the human rights of clean drinking water are available to all Canadians, including those residing in Iqaluit. Iqaluit has asked the federal government for $133 million to fix the infrastructure surrounding the water supply. Advocacy for this issue needs to influence decisions within our political, economic, and social institutions. The proposed Canada Water Agency could advocate improving freshwater management across Canada. Our Canadian government needs to fix the water infrastructure and eradicate this water inequality in Nunavut. Currently, the military from Ottawa has handed out 16 litres of bottled water per household, but this is not enough. The federal government needs to do more to help the people of Iqaluit as they deal with this state of emergency. The federal government should immediately fund the $133 million Iqaluit needs for water infrastructure. The federal government must make Iqaluit’s water crisis a priority to prevent this emergency from happening again.


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