When staff at Iqaluit’s Qajuqturvik Community Food Center heard the news last week that the water in the city’s distribution pipes was unsafe to drink due to fuel contamination, they learned that some people would not be able to get the precious liquid by themselves.
The city established two distribution sites where people could fill jugs with drinking water, and many were able to drive to the nearby Sylvia Grinnell River and collect it themselves to boil and drink.
But Rachel Blais, executive director of the food center, which runs a food service and other community programs, said many people do not have vehicles. Others, he said, have children or work various jobs and don’t have time to fetch water.
“We know that we have many community members who are homeless, or have no access to transportation, or have disabilities or mobility issues, seniors, people who have children at home, and the list goes on.” Blais said in a telephone interview Sunday.
The 8,000 residents of the capital of Nunavut were told Tuesday not to drink tap water after complaints began to flood over the smell of fuel.
City officials later said the tests revealed a high concentration of various fuel components in a tank that supplies the water. The city has isolated and bypassed the tank, and once it is emptied and unloaded, authorities will investigate where the pollutants are coming from.
Tap water can still be used for bathing, showering, laundry and washing dishes, depending on the city.
Blais said the first thing her group did was post a message on Facebook asking if anyone needed help getting water. They received calls and emails immediately, and initially their staff and members of their pre-employment training program filled the need. They then applied for and received emergency funding from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and Community Food Centers of Canada to hire a full-time driver.
That driver now fills jugs of water at distribution points in the city, or goes to the river himself if the lines are too long and takes them home in a cargo van. Deliveries are also made to other community groups such as the local women’s shelter.
The water that is needed is not just for drinking. The city also advises people not to cook or clean food with tap water.
“We have a lot of community members who have a lot of people in their homes, a lot of children in their homes, and they need a lot of water,” Blais said.
The group delivers water to people without cars after fuel contaminated pipes in #Iqaluit #DrinkingWater #Nunavut
Another challenge, he said, was that local stores immediately ran out of jugs of water. Some of the people who needed the water supply couldn’t afford the jugs anyway, Blais added. So, starting Monday, he said they will deliver water in big Rubbermaid bags.
The Nunavut government has also been sending shipments of drinking water. Agnico Eagle Mines also delivered approximately 15,000 liters of water to Iqaluit on Friday and Saturday.
Nunavut’s director of public health, Dr. Michael Patterson, said last week that there does not appear to be any health risk to Iqaluit residents who drank contaminated tap water, and that people may start drinking it again in the mid this week depending on more test results.
Patterson said the contamination did not occur naturally and could be due to an old oil spill that was released by melting permafrost.
The city said its hydraulic engineering consultants suspect that contaminants outside the plant, found in the soil or groundwater, have entered the tank from outside.
Blais noted that the water situation in Iqaluit is not unusual in many Canadian indigenous communities, where boil-water advisories are the norm. Climate change and the city’s growing population are other threats to water security, he said.
Iqaluit is very lucky to have the Sylvia Grinnell River so close, he said.
“If we didn’t have access to that source of clean water, I don’t know what the situation would have been.”
– By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
This Canadian Press report was first published on October 18, 2021.