The Current·Q & A

Iqaluit needs action from all levels of government to fix water crisis, says deputy mayor

Iqaluit's Deputy Mayor Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster says now is the time to act on the city's drinking water crisis, and help from all levels of government is needed to fix the problem.

Evidence of fuel was found in city's water supply, making it undrinkable even if boiled or filtered

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, Iqaluit's deputy mayor and a candidate in territorial election, said she went door to door bringing people potable water who needed it. (Elections Nunavut)

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Iqaluit's Deputy Mayor Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster says now is the time to act on the city's drinking water crisis, and help from all levels of government is needed to fix the problem.

The city is in a state of emergency, after city staff found evidence of fuel contamination in the drinking water that has made it unsafe to drink, filter or boil.

For at least 10 days, people there have been complaining that the water smelled of gasoline.

Pitsiulaaq is currently on leave, and a candidate for a seat in Nunavut's legislative assembly in the upcoming territorial elections. 

She spoke with Matt Galloway on The Current about the situation in Iqaluit. Here's part of their conversation. 

Yesterday, you were going home to home, dropping off water. Tell me what that was like. And personally, I mean, what were you hearing from some of the families that you spoke with, who can't turn on the tap and use the water that would normally be right there for them? 

I've spent the last day going to the water booster stations where the trucks full of river water are distributing water to anybody who has buckets and jugs. And what I found out is that there are many people in our city that actually don't even have jugs to carry water.

So what I've been doing is I've been filling those jugs that I have, and the buckets that I have, and I've been driving house to house using social media and my cell phone for people to contact me and let me know that they need water. 

Residents collect water from the Sylvia Grinnell River near Iqaluit, Nunavut on Wednesday, Oct. 13 after potential petroleum was discovered in the city's tap water, making it undrinkable. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

What I've been finding is that, you know, there's a huge, huge part of our population that doesn't have access to water today because there's no public transit system. So if people don't have money for cab fare or if it's too far to walk, then they can't come down and get water. 

There was one lady that I stopped to help who had a jug, a juice jug and a pan full of water. And what she was doing was she was walking about five metres, putting the pan down, going back and getting the jug, walking to that pan, and then she was kind of leapfrogging her water home.

So, you know, some of the houses that had seven, eight, nine, 10 people in there, other households had only one person. There were people with mobility issues and everybody is just grateful that we have access to take a tank that can bring us water closer to people. 

The territorial government put out a statement that reads in part: "The government is working closely with the city of Iqaluit to address their issues with the municipal water supply and ensure residents have ongoing access to clean drinking water."

This isn't a new issue. The city has been in a water crisis for about five years now. What's the root cause of this? What's going on behind the scenes? 

So there are a combination of things. We need about $100 million to address the expansion of the water reservoir and to replace the aging and crumbling piping systems. 

We're a mixture of underground piping systems as well as water tanks and sewage tanks in some homes. 

That crumbling infrastructure, it's kind of a domino effect where we're seeing, as every year passes, we're seeing more and more sections of our sewage and water system breaking down. We also have the issue of our water reservoirs being too small to meet our needs.

And to build more housing in the city itself?

Absolutely.  So we don't have enough water to expand to have more people living in the city. So we're in a housing crisis. We need at least 1,400 new houses in order to provide housing for everybody who needs it in Iqaluit. 

Grocery store customers fill their vehicles with bottled water in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. (Jane George/CBC)

But ... we can't create new lots, because we can't add infrastructure to our crumbling infrastructure.... The old infrastructure doesn't have the capacity to perform if we add new sections. 

What we need is to deal with the crumbling infrastructure. As I said, it's at least $100 million and then we need to expand the infrastructure so that we can actually build new homes.

Where will that funding come from? This is an immediate crisis, but to your point, this is a much larger issue as well.... You're running for a position in the territorial government. There's also the federal government. So who should step up to help solve the big crisis here? 

Both. So we don't know what the costs are going to be to deal with the current crisis, the emergency. But we know we need that $100 million. 

It has to come from both the territorial government as well as the federal government. And of course, the city is able to pay part of that as well, and has these repairs budgeted. 

But we need all levels of government to come together to solve this crisis. And we need people also to understand that a large part of our population in Iqaluit is Indigenous. It's Inuit. And it's the Inuit that live here that are most at risk at suffering due to this water crisis, because of their baseline health status and levels of poverty. So we need people to act and we need people to act now. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Julie Crysler and Joana Draghic.

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