Water is the lifeblood of every community, an integral part of ancient and modern societies. Without it, life is unsustainable. Access to potable water is everyone’s fundamental human right, as acknowledged by the United Nations. In the absence of sufficient quantity and quality water resources, livelihoods and communities are adversely impacted, as well as activities such as cooking, bathing, and farming. Inadequate access to available water resources can also make us vulnerable to infectious diseases due to poor sanitation, and in some cases create conflicts between water users and reduce resilience of communities. Recent experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have given us plenty more reasons to appreciate every single drop that comes from our taps or in some cases, community water stations (structures, often in small rural and remote communities, where safe drinking water can be obtained). The use of water resources in any form, depends on its availability, quality, management, and related infrastructure. Unfortunately, water insecurity continues to be a chronic concern for many rural, remote, and Indigenous communities across Canada.
A sustainable potable water supply in Canadian communities is inherently linked to water infrastructure. Water infrastructure, when it is monitored, maintained, and working properly, can provide us with good quality drinking water and limit the pollution of our local rivers and streams. Yet addressing aging and deteriorating water infrastructure has not been made a priority since the 1970s, resulting in challenges with monitoring, maintaining, and replacement of deteriorating water infrastructure and maintaining water services. The Walkerton tragedy in May 2000 is a historical event that demonstrates the importance of the maintenance and monitoring of water sources and infrastructure. After the death of seven and illness of over 2000 people in the Walkerton Ontario, a provincial government public inquiry (“Walkerton Inquiry”) revealed that if continuous monitoring and proficient training had been in place, the contamination would have been prevented from entering the distribution system.
Despite the wide response after the Walkerton Inquiry, a recent report by Environment and Climate Change Canada stated that 87 per cent of Boil Water Advisories (BWAs) issued in Canada in 2019 were due to problems with the equipment and processes used to treat, store, or distribute potable water. This statistic will only grow as our infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate. The majority of these BWAs in Canada (82 per cent) were issued in rural communities where potable water systems serve 500 people or less.
The Government of Canada has highlighted concerns about long term BWAs in recent years (BWAs in place for over one year), particularly in First Nations communities. Subsequent investments have reduced the long term BWAs from 162 to 44 (across 32 communities, as of October 2021). Yet many other long term BWAs continue to exist. As of October 2021, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, reported 161 BWAs that had been in place for over one year across 124 communities. Of these, 53 BWAs in 42 communities had been in place for more than two decades. All but one of these communities (98 per cent) have populations of less than 500 residents.
Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), like other provinces, offers a classic example of where concerns such as aging, degrading, and inappropriate infrastructure is widespread in rural communities. In NL, water insecurity is a growing concern with serious public health implications, especially in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. A 2014 study on rural drinking water in NL revealed a high incidence of undesirable and non-potable drinking water, including discolored tap water, unpleasant water odor, large numbers of BWAs, high levels of disinfectant by-products, and use of untreated water sources including roadside springs. As in the Walkerton inquiry, aging and degrading infrastructure and lack of operator training were identified as common causes of water insecurity in NL communities.
Ensuring safe water in NL with potable water dispensing units (PWDU)
A small scale solution that has evolved to help rural, remote, and Indigenous communities in NL secure sustained access to potable water has been the installation of potable water dispensing units (PWDU). These systems, also known as water kiosks, have been adopted and installed in over 32 communities throughout NL since the early 2000s to help address water insecurity concerns, including BWAs and other problems with community-wide distribution systems. Such water treatment systems can be tailored to specific water sources and conditions at the community-level and are designed to provide high-quality drinking water to residents at a central location. While often a supplementary and/or short term water source, for some communities PWDUs are their primary source of clean, safe drinking water.
The onset of the COVID–19 pandemic added challenges for the communities and provided an opportunity to further investigate both the benefits and challenges associated with maintaining and operating PWDUs. A diverse research team made up of researchers from Memorial University, the University of Guelph, Municipalities of Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL), NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), and Nunatsiavut Government (NG) came together with the support of Qalipu First Nation to tackle these questions.
Preliminary findings indicate that the pandemic has further exposed weaknesses in rural water systems and in some cases further exacerbated challenges associated with accessing water from PWDUs, such as further delayed access to new units and replacement parts. Further, many NL communities who have managed to invest in PWDUs experience challenges related to human resource capacity, training, and/ or funding, all which impact their ability to maintain and operate PWDU infrastructure. Thus, the pandemic has created further challenges and barriers, preventing vulnerable individuals and communities within the province from accessing the most basic human right. These communities did, however, show the ability to adapt to the everchanging COVID-19 guidelines and to take precautions to prevent further challenges such as ensuring they had sufficient human resource capacity for operating the PWDUs should stricter guidelines stipulate that the units must be supervised and cleaned constantly throughout the time it was open to the public.
Overcoming PWDU water challenges
Given the jurisdictional complexity around drinking water in NL, the capacity, coordination, and collaboration of all relevant institutions and actors (such as Indigenous and other local communities) related to drinking water is critical to collect relevant knowledge, practices, and capacity. For example, the collaborative PWDU research team housed at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus has brought different jurisdictions together with the purpose of finding scale appropriate solutions for enhancing drinking water security and alleviating chronic water problems in small communities throughout NL.
Another positive sign is that in January 2021, federal and provincial governments announced millions of dollars in joint funding via the Green Infrastructure Stream to address deteriorating potable water systems and wastewater infrastructure in communities. While these initiatives are an important step, proper monitoring and maintenance is also important. In NL, drinking water distribution and treatment systems are large components of the infrastructure that ensure the availability and security of usable/freshwater resources, but continued investments in upgrades, maintenance and in some cases new, more appropriate types of systems are needed.
Drinking water challenges have consistently plagued rural, remote, and Indigenous communities throughout Canada and we know that the lack of and/or aging infrastructure is one of the top causes of these challenges. We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has further stressed the importance of water security. Communities need reliable and sustainable potable water sources. PWDU systems provide clean, safe drinking water when they are in service and they offer a small-scale infrastructure solution for many communities. At the same time, there are still opportunities to enhance community resilience.
Ignatius Yankey is an alumnus of the Environmental Policy Institute, based at Memorial University.