It is estimated that 37 per cent of Canada’s total freshwater is contained in the three territories.  In spite of this abundant resource, water can be a scarce commodity, particularly in Northern communities that require a clean source of water year-round. Winter can last eight to ten months of the year, and in winter, most of the surface water is frozen with ice up to two metres thick covering it. The north is also a desert with most regions receiving less than 250 millimetres of annual precipitation, most of it as snow. Given these fundamental challenges, community water supply in Nunavut is particularly challenging due to geographic isolation, an extreme cold climate, permafrost geology, extreme costs, limited level of services, and other unique northern community attributes.

Water supply and delivery in Nunavut communities

Nunavut is the largest of the three territories with 20 per cent of Canada’s land mass and only 30,000 people. The 25 communities of Nunavut range in size from Grise Fiord in the far North, with 140 people, to Iqaluit, with 7,000 people, in the south. Eleven of the 25 communities have over a 1000 people, and all of the communities except one (Baker Lake) are coastal. Surface water provides drinking water to all of the communities because permafrost does not permit access to any groundwater resources.

Community water supplies come from lakes and rivers, and provide either year-round, or a seasonal water supply. To use lakes and rivers year-round as a water source, the surface ice, up to two metres thick must be taken into consideration. The ice formation can damage the piping in lakes if it is placed in water, which is too shallow, and in rivers it is vulnerable to damage, particularly during spring break of river ice. Lakes and rivers that provide a seasonal water supply are used to fill long-term storage reservoirs. Nine Nunavut communities have engineered storage reservoirs that have sufficient water stored for up to a year of the community’s needs. An allowance for the formation of ice must be considered in the design of these reservoirs.

Proximity of water to the community itself presents another challenge because of the cost of roads and pipelines, including the operation and maintenance to keep the roads and pipelines functioning. At nearly $1 million (Canadian) per kilometre to build for a road and a pipeline in some locations, the economics places distant piped water sources beyond the reach of most communities. Add to this cost the potential for pipeline freezing, and the severe operating conditions during blizzards, and closer becomes a lot better.

Drinking water is disinfected in Nunavut before delivery to the users. More substantial treatment using filtration technologies is being introduced into Nunavut communities to provide a multi barrier against the potential for drinking water contamination. Water treatment improvements are encouraged by public health officials, and may ultimately be mandated by public health regulations.

The cost of Nunavut water

The cost of northern water, including both the capital cost, and the operation and maintenance costs, is a function of the cost of labour and materials, which are influenced by the geographic isolation, the extreme cold climate, and the permafrost geology. The water and sewer systems have operating challenges associated with the potential freezing of the piping due to heat loss, which is solved with pipe insulation, water circulation, and heating the water.

An example of the capital cost of a piped system in Nunavut is the replacement of the piped system in Resolute, which was tendered several years ago. The lowest tender received for the project was 
$44.4 million, which put the project budget approximately $18 million (70 per cent) over the pre-tender construction estimate of $26 million. Resolute has a population of 250 people, so the cost per person for the system replacement was nearly $180,000.

An example of the operation and maintenance costs of a water and sewer system in this Territory are the costs for water and sewer in the community of Grise Fiord. Grise Fiord is the northern-most community in Canada. The annual cost was over $2,200 per person in 2002, or 6.4 cents per litre for water and sewer (4.5 cents per litre or $45 per cubic metre for water only); the overall water use was 5,680,000 litres or 95 litres per capita per day.

Extreme water issues and the future of Nunavut water

As challenging as ‘normal’ water supply is in Nunavut, there are several examples of extreme water use issues in Nunavut. In Grise Fiord, the stream that annually fills the water reservoirs dried up during one filling season, and the community ran out of drinking water before the reservoir could be refilled the following spring. The community resorted to harvesting icebergs, chopping and placing the ice into the reservoir to maintain the water supply.

The communities of Kugluktuk and Kugaaruk are experiencing issues with saltwater intrusion into their river-water supply systems because tidal action is creating a salt water wedge that advances up the river to the point of the water supply intake. In the community of Sanikiluaq, saltwater intrusion may also be occurring with the ocean water making its way into the lake that supplies the community.

Most northern communities also have limited capacity for dealing with water issues, whether they be financial, administrative, or human capacities resources capacities. In spite of this limited capacity communities are facing the increasing demands for finance, administration, and human resources being driven by increasing regulatory demands, and the increasing sophistication in the technology associated with the water for treatment of drinking water and wastewater management.

Climate change is also emerging as an issue for water supply in Nunavut. The water supply issues in Grise Fiord, Kugluktuk, Kugaaruk, and Sanikiluaq may not be conclusively caused by climate change, but the warming of the Arctic is making the problems such as these worse. It is anticipated that the warming Arctic climate in Nunavut will influence the quantity and quality of water that is already in short supply. Water supply options for the future are being studied to appropriately increase redundancy, and resiliency.

Ken Johnson is a senior environmental planner and engineer, cold regions specialist, at AECOM Canada Ltd.


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