The native water crisis

November 15, 2005

Dear Friend:

Will we never learn? Once again, we watch with horror as a community struggles with contaminated water. And once again, we are appalled by our governments responding with political fixes rather than lasting solutions.

This time the community is Kashechewan, a First Nation near James Bay in Northern Ontario. The community’s water treatment plant has long threatened public health. It has been run by uncertified operators. Its water intake pipe has often drawn in sewage from the community’s waste lagoon. For years, the plant has pumped out a liquid that looks more like beer than water, prompting officials to advise residents to boil their water before drinking it.

In October, things got even worse. The plant’s chlorinator malfunctioned, and the alarm system didn’t sound, having been disconnected by the operators. A doctor from nearby Moose Factory described the dangerous result: “We had people with basically sewer water coming out of their taps.” Unsurprisingly, tests revealed E. coli bacteria in the water.

Our political leaders expressed shock and outrage over the deplorable conditions in Kashechewan. The Prime Minister spoke for all of us when he declared, “It’s just no longer acceptable for this kind of thing to be in any reserve in the country.” But no alert politician can claim to have been surprised by the stories about Kashechewan’s water. Health Canada placed the community under a boil-water advisory more than two years ago. And it was more than two years ago that the Ontario Clean Water Agency issued a report calling Kashechewan a “Walkerton-in-waiting.” Last year, an engineering consultant warned that operations, maintenance, and record keeping at the plant were inadequate.

Any political leader who has been paying attention must also have known the tragic truth that Kashechewan is just one of many reserves struggling with tainted water. More than three years ago, the report of the Walkerton Inquiry warned that reserves have “some of the poorest quality water in the province.” Too often, it noted, untrained operators work with obsolete infrastructure, producing contaminated water. Testing and inspection are inadequate. As a result, it concluded, “the First Nations face a serious health problem.”

Other warnings abound. Health Canada reports that 85 native communities across Canada are currently under boil-water advisories. The advisories reflect a much larger problem. In 2001, the federal government assessed the water systems in more than 700 native communities. It found many design and construction faults. It found that the operators of most of the systems lacked essential knowledge and skills ?just 10 percent of them met provincial certification requirements. As a result of these and other deficiencies, it found a significant risk to the quality or the safety of drinking water in 75 percent of the communities. The government met this news with astonishing indifference, announcing just last month that the systems posing the highest risks may not be fixed until March 2008!

But even then, unless we address the true causes of the native water crisis, the problems will remain. The most generous funding will achieve little unless accompanied by meaningful accountability mechanisms – both for the provincial and federal departments that support the systems and, more important, for the native communities that build, operate, and monitor them. Currently, no such accountability mechanisms are in place. No one is clearly responsible for providing safe drinking water on reserves. No laws or enforceable standards apply. No one even knows whether monies earmarked for water treatment are diverted for other purposes.

Long-term solutions depend on clear definitions of who is responsible for what, stringent performance requirements spelling out the standards that operators must meet and the frequency with which they must test their water, transparent record-keeping to provide ready access to information about expenditures and water quality, and enforcement mechanisms to hold accountable those who fail to meet their responsibilities.

The Prime Minister has vowed that the government will do “whatever it takes” to ensure that Canada’s First Nations have access to clean drinking water. It takes only three things – legally binding standards, the expertise to meet them, and the political will to hold accountable those responsible for their communities’ health and safety.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Brubaker
Executive Director

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