Climate change is worsening water scarcity in rural Alaska says study

Aerial view of melting permafrost tundra and lakes near the Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 12, 2019. Climate change’s impact on water access and quality affects both physical and mental health and wellness, a new study says. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Climate change is worsening water scarcity in rural Alaska and a host of new strategies is needed to help address the issue says a recent study.

The study, Participatory Modeling of Water Vulnerability in Remote Alaskan Households Using Causal Loop Diagrams” was published in the journal Environmental Management.

“High income countries affected with water insecurity is a reality,” co-author Antonia Sohns, a PhD Candidate at Canada’s McGill University in Montreal, said in a phone interview. “Water scarcity and access is an under-told story in the North and it hasn’t been discussed enough in my opinion.”

The participatory modeling study was done by speaking with everyone from state level regulators to tribal governments about the causes and consequences of water insecurity in the state and found the Indigenous communities were especially impacted.

“Inadequate water access has been a persistent issue in more than 200 rural Alaskan communities, whose residents are primarily Alaska Native people,” the study said.

Rural Alaska Water Stats

As of 2015:

  • 6.1% of communities in rural Alaska hauled water to their homes
  • 7.2% had mixed service
  • 11.1% had individual wells and septic tanks
  • 17.2% were unserved
  • 58.3% of communities had piped water supply

-Source: “Participatory Modeling of Water Vulnerability in Remote Alaskan Households Using Causal Loop Diagrams

The World Health Organization says that 20 liters of water per person per day is the minimum quantity needed for essential health and hygiene.

In rural Alaska, homes without piped water averaged far below that at 5.7 liters of water per person per day.

This is also far below the average elsewhere in the United States where people average 302–379 litres of water per person per day, a well as low compared to other northern regions such as neighbouring Canada where, for example, residents of the Arctic territory of Nunavut average 110 liters per person per day.

A 2013 view of Anchorage, Alaska. In some parts of the city residents paid nearly five dollars per 1000 gallons of water per household in 2017, while residents in some rural Alaskan communities pay $50 for the same amount. (Erik Hill/AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News via The Canadian Press)

Sohns says a regulatory focus on water quality, but not water quantity helps perpetuate the inequality. 

“This is one of the big issues,” Sohns said.  “With water quality, there are standards in terms of what people have to meet in terms of water treatment, but water quantity is often not legislated.

“So if you’re making it really challenging to provide high quality water, but then you’re not accounting for the quantity of water, it can have big health impacts.”

“With water quality, there are standards in terms of what people have to meet in terms of water treatment, but water quantity is often not legislated,” says researcher Antonia Sohns. (AFP)

The study noted that Anchorage residents paid nearly five dollars per 1000 gallons of water per household in 2017, while residents in places like the Yupik community of Eek haul treated water from a community watering point and pay $50 for 1000 gallons.

This water disparity, coupled with the low employment opportunities and low household income makes high water costs an increased burden, Sohns said.

“There are just tremendous pressures on household incomes in the North especially as people have to consider the really high pricing of food and energy costs. They’re sitting there thinking to themselves:  ‘What am I going to be spending this money on?’ and it’s all so expensive. The cost of water in the North is why higher than other parts of the U.S. or Canada and that’s true across the Arctic. For residents, it’s this tension between how you spend when you’re really limited in household income.”

Pandemic pressures

The COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified this disparity.

“Health professionals say we should increase hand washing, we should increase hygiene and make sure you’re doing your best to sanitize and clean your environment, but that’s really hard when you’re hauling buckets of water, paying really high prices and are already having to figure out how to self limit your water usage such that you can share it with your household,” Sohns said. 

“You can’t meet those health policy recommendations under those conditions because you’re already struggling.”

Climate accelerating water inequities in rural Alaska

The study also found that the warming climate’s affect on the environment was accelerating water inequalities in rural Alaska. Permafrost thaw is causing breaks in existing pipes. The shifting and sinking land is also allowing salt water intrusion into the fresh water lakes and rivers that many Indigenous Alaskans depend on.

“What really jumped out of this study was the role climate change is playing,” Sohns said. “Essentially that all of our water infrastructure, especially in the North, is being tremendously impacted.”

A home destroyed by beach erosion tips over 27 September 2006 in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref. Temperatures that have risen 4.4C over the last 30 years are causing a reduction in sea ice, thawing of permafrost along the coast, making the shoreline vulnerable to erosion. Climate change in the North is also affecting water quality and quantity in many parts of rural Alaska. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

In addition to the impact on water access and quality, these changes also impact mental health and wellness, the study says.

“People in rural Alaska have been harvesting water from these resources for thousands of years and suddenly for these culturally significant water sources not to be there, or have the quality change, is startling. Not just because you depend on it for your physcial well-being but because of your and your family’s relationship with water or the stories behind it. 

“There’s a psychological trauma with climate change because it’s disrupting  community practices and the  landscape features that people have always seen and depended on for generations.”

“There’s actually a mandated amount of water in Canada, so it’s better regulated at the federal level,” says researcher Antonia Sohns. “That’s also true in Finland, in Norway and a couple of other Arctic countries so that really improves the water quantity that households receive.” (Courtesy Antonia Sohns)
Preparing for the future

Robust infrastructure planning could help mitigate some of these impacts, the study said.

“We have to figure out how to make our existing infrastructure more resilient,” Sohns said. “Infrastructure has such a long-term planning horizon that we really have to think about how are we building this super extensive, long-lasting system for an environment that is going to be changing and plan for everything from precipitation to landscape changes.”

Going from traditional piped water systems to things like rainwater catchment or grey water recycling and reuse should also be explored for rural Alaska, the paper found.

And making sure that Indigenous communities are fully involved in future decisions can also help rectify decisions made in the past where rural Alaskans were excluded, Sohns said.

“A lot of water issues in the North are the legacy of those power asymmetries,” she said.

“Who was at the table when infrastructure was decided? Who was part of that conversation? It wasn’t always the right group of people. It wasn’t as representative of the communities that were going to be affected by those decisions.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca 

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Water monitoring, suspended by the pandemic, resumes in Canada’s Northwest Territories, CBC News

Finland: Jump in, the water’s (mostly) fine in Finland, study finds, Yle News

Iceland: Iceland to restrict heavy fuel oil use in territorial waters, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Rise in sea level from ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica match worst-case scenario: study, CBC News

United States: Drought causing water shortages in Southcentral Alaska communities, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying an culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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