Iqaluit’s water is contaminated: This is what it’s like for one teen

Published 2021-10-21 15:43
UPDATE:On Dec. 10, Nunavut's Department of Health lifted the do-not-consume order in Iqaluit, meaning residents there could once again drink from the city's water supply.

The city has told residents not to drink or cook with tap water until further notice


Have you ever been told to turn off the tap while brushing your teeth because you’re “wasting water”?

For a lot of Canadian kids, the supply of clean water might seem endless. You turn on your tap and it’s just there. 

But for more than a week now, people in Iqaluit, Nunavut, have not had it so easy when it comes to accessing safe drinking water.

The city has been in a state of emergency since Oct. 12, with officials telling residents not to drink the city-supplied water because of a possible contamination.

Water is always precious in Iqaluit

Even before this current crisis, Akutaq Williamson Bathory, 16, who lives in Iqaluit, was aware of the scarcity and preciousness of water.

In Canada’s most northern capital city, some households, including Akutaq’s, have treated water delivered to their house daily by truck.

Map of Canada.

(Graphic design by Philip Street/CBC)

That means it’s a real possibility that the taps could run dry, even without this current crisis.

Akutaq told CBC Kids News she remembers a time, back in 2015, when the city paused delivering trucked water on Wednesdays and her family had to be extra careful not to run out.

A truck delivering fresh water to Iqaluit residents.

For some households in Iqaluit, trucks deliver fresh water each day, except on statutory holidays. The city relies mostly on the Lake Geraldine reservoir for its tap water and has had to declare multiple water emergencies recently because of low levels of water in the lake. (Image credit: CBC)

But this new situation with contaminated water is the first time Akutaq hasn’t had easy access to clean drinking water, she said.

“You can’t just turn on the tap, like normal.”

What went wrong with the city’s water?

In early October, Iqaluit residents began reporting that a smell was coming from the city’s water.

On Oct. 12, a state of emergency was declared after city staff found evidence of fuel contamination in the city's treated water supply.

Three days later, city officials told residents and the media that water quality testing in Iqaluit showed “exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components” in one of the city's water tanks.

Left, empty store shelves with no more cases of bottled water. Right, residents receive donations of bottled water.

When the announcement that the tap water was contaminated was  made, many people rushed to buy bottled water, and stores quickly ran out of stock, left. Akutaq said her dad bought two 24-packs of water for $60. Bottled water has also been flown in and given to residents for free, right. (Image credit David Gunn/CBC, Casey Lessard/Reuters)

Residents have been told not to drink, cook with or clean food with the regular supply of city water.

Officials said the water could contain diesel or kerosene.

Is this dangerous?

Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut's chief public health officer, has said residents shouldn’t worry about long-term health concerns.

On Oct. 21, it was announced that the hospital in Iqaluit was evacuating some patients by helicopter out of Nunavut because of the lack of access to clean water.

Engineers are working on figuring out how the water was contaminated and if the tank is safe to use, according to city officials.

The city says it is now flushing the water systems to ensure all potential contaminants are out and waiting for more test results.

The city said the pipe flushing is taking longer than expected and they will update the community on the situation on Monday, Oct. 25.

The state of emergency is planned to stay in effect until Oct. 27, with no date for when the city’s regular water supply will be safe again.

How are people getting safe water?

The city has set up two centres for people to fill up jugs with potable (safe to consume) water from trucks that are filled from the Sylvia Grinnell river.

Iqaluit resident getting her reusable water jug refilled.
Residents can line up and have containers filled with fresh water each evening. For people who aren’t able to collect water this way, the city has been arranging water deliveries. (Image credit: Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

The city has put household limits on potable water and people have been told they can still bathe with the regular city water.

Many residents have been getting their water directly from the Sylvia Grinell river.

The river water has been confirmed safe by the city, but people are still advised to boil it before consuming.

River has become main drinking water source

While Akutaq said her family drank fresh water from the river by choice in the past, they never had to rely on it as their main source of drinking water before.

Her family is fortunate, she said, because they have a vehicle and water jugs and are able to make the 10-minute drive to collect water.

Iqaluit residents refilling water jugs with river water.

Many residents, like those pictured here, have been filling up their water jugs directly from the Sylvia Grinnell river. Akutaq said she and her family work together to fill their jugs and carry them back up to their car. (Image credit: Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

Akutaq’s mother, Laakkuluk, said the family fills numerous jugs every few days. They boil the water before using it.

She also said the family didn’t bathe for five days when they first learned the water was contaminated because they needed to clean their home water tank and conserve water.

It was Akutaq and her brother Igimaq, 12, who actually climbed into their home’s empty tank to help make sure it was properly cleaned out.

Contaminated water meant school closures

Iqaluit schools were closed after the city declared the state of emergency because of uncertainty around contamination and the availability of water.

That meant Akutaq and her two younger siblings had to stay home from school for 3 days starting on Oct. 13. They returned to school this Monday.

Inukshuk High School.

Akutaq goes to Inuksuk High School. The school was closed on Oct. 13 and reopened on Oct. 18 once it was determined it was safe for students to return. (Image credit: Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

Now that she’s back at school, Akutaq said she has to remember to bring a water bottle with clean water — and not to waste it.

“It just makes you have a mindset of how much water you're really using.”

Access to clean water, a bigger issue

The situation in Iqaluit has made Akutaq think about the ongoing issues around safe drinking water for many Indigenous communities across Canada.

Akutaq said she “can’t imagine how hard and frustrating” it must be for those who have not had easy access to clean water for years.

“It's only been about a week here and it's worrisome.”


Akutaq, far left pictured with her family, said ‘the really amazing part about living [in Nunavut] is how peaceful and open it is.’ She is Inuk and said the Arctic environment is very sensitive and she hopes people in the south will pay more attention to how their actions affect the northern and Inuit way of life. (Image submitted by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory)

Akutaq said she hopes those communities get more support and that more awareness is raised about the problem.

“I think no one should really have to ever worry about whether their water is safe to drink or to use, so I just hope that everybody appreciates their water because water is life, and so I just hope people appreciate it.”

Have more questions? We'll do our best to look into it for you. Ask for permission from a parent or guardian and email us at

With files from Jackie Mackay/CBC, The Canadian Press

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