With cooking pots, a cooler and big blue Rubbermaids in tow, trips to the river to gather water this fall became part of the daily routine for Iqaluit resident Andrea Andersen and her family.
Andersen is one of many long-time residents of Nunavut’s capital city who decided not to risk drinking tap water that reeked of fuel, despite the City of Iqaluit insisting it was safe to drink. “There were hundreds of people at the river collecting water in any type of container they could use,” she says.
Iqalungmiut were told they must be smelling chlorine when reports of the gas-like odour–and symptoms like headaches and skin rashes–took over local social media pages at the beginning of October. Even so, Andersen’s family started filling containers at the Sylvia Grinnell River for drinking, cooking and bathing.
A cooler became a makeshift bathtub for Andersen’s two kids, after heating the water to a comfortable temperature on the stove. “Some days we were going through 10 gallons of water between washing dishes, bathing the children and doing a bucket shower for ourselves,” she says
Like the rest of Iqaluit’s 8,000-or-so residents, Andersen didn’t know then that they would be using bottled or river water for the next two months.
The city announced a local state of emergency and do-not-drink order by mid-October, once tests uncovered petroleum hydrocarbons in the water, including compounds like benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. (A first round of tests, done improperly, had previously come back clean.)
Hundreds of thousands of litres of bottled water were flown up to the Baffin Island city and distributed to residents. While the city set up water pick-up stations and water-filling trucks around town, these resources weren’t accessible to everyone.
Andersen quickly noticed barriers for some Iqalungmiut. Most information about when and where to pick up water was circulated through social media and not over the radio, leaving out those who lacked regular internet access. Information was also circulated primarily in English, despite the fact that roughly 46 percent of Iqaluit’s population considers Inuktitut their first language, according to the city’s most recent data. “A lot of people were frustrated,” Andersen says.
Transportation was another big issue. Residents had to drive to pick up water, and some were stuck paying $16 for a round-trip taxi fare multiple times a week. And then they had to figure out how to store the water. “You had to buy a jug at the store, which was almost $40, and if you have a large household, you needed those larger jugs,” Andersen says. “It was a real financial strain on a lot of people.” Plus, water jugs sold out within hours at NorthMart and Arctic Ventures—the two main retailers in town.
“I decided something needed to happen,” Andersen says. That’s why she started a GoFundMe fundraising page to help get water and supplies to community members. In a matter of days, $70,000 poured in from across the country.
Anderson and a team of volunteers quickly got to work to find out what people needed. They began purchasing items like water jugs and taxi vouchers and distributing them for free.
Expectant mothers, for instance, were provided camping shower bags that could be filled with clean water and hung up on a shower head. “Little things like that, I don’t think anyone really thought of,” Andersen says.
Hundreds of cases of ready-to-drink baby formula were next on the shopping list, because parents couldn’t mix powdered baby formula with the tap water. Liquid formula is pricey in Nunavut, because products must be flown in or shipped up by sealift in the summer. “I think it was around $65 for a case,” says Anderson. “With a newborn you’d probably be going through a case in a day-and-a-half.”
Rachel Blais, executive director of the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre, says she saw the direct effects the lack of clean water had on people. The centre serves many of Iqaluit’s most vulnerable populations, providing a meal to anybody who needs one. Country foods, like
seal or meat, are often incorporated into the meals.
Typically, 100 to 150 Iqalungmiut come in for a meal, but during the water crisis that number basically doubled to 250—breaking record numbers from Iqaluit’s first COVID-19 lockdown last winter.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the water issues began in Iqaluit, food insecurity was already a problem. In 2018, about 57 percent of Nunavummiut were food insecure, according to data collected by a food insecurity research team at the University of Toronto.
In the fall of 2021, Iqaluit residents who had never visited the food centre before were coming in. “Even if someone has access to healthy, nutritious, affordable food, if they don’t have clean water to cook with or to wash produce with, where does that leave them?” Blais says. “There were people asking for a cup [of water] to take home with them as they left so that they could take medication at night.”
The centre quickly accessed emergency funding from Qikiqtani Inuit Association to hire a full-time driver to deliver water to those who couldn’t easily get it from the city. This included people with disabilities and elders who had trouble carrying the heavy water jugs around.
The do-not-consume order was lifted on December 10, 2021, but less than six weeks later, residents reported a fuel-like smell in their tap water again.
The city insisted once again the smell was likely chlorine, but a few days later, it suggested it was residual fuel from the last spill. It was safe to drink, officials assured residents. Still, after the trust was broken the first time around, hundreds of residents opted to gather their own river water, just to be safe.
With the river frozen over by then, residents took turns filling jugs through holes drilled in the ice, as temperatures dipped down to -40°C.
They were still gathering river water on January 19, when the city issued a boil water advisory and the water treatment plant—built in 1962, and the suspected source of contamination—was shut down. As of late-January, city officials told residents the water, being pumped to taps from a local reservoir, may have an odour, appear discoloured or contain sediments.
According to a 2020 study done by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 87 percent of water treatment facilities in Inuit Nunangat are in poor condition and the piped water systems that do exist are often decades older than their intended lifespans.
Blais says the situation in Iqaluit is just a preview of what’s to come across the territory if the federal government doesn’t replace aging water infrastructure.
“The threat is already there,”