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Water Today Title November 23, 2017

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2015/8/14 - Update 2015/8/17

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Iqaluit's Water Woes

Harper northern photo-op runs smack into water crisis

A large swath of Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, was without water for four days, between August 8 and 12. The emergency water shut-down was called when multiple breaks were found in the utilidor, a system of insulated pipes that carries drinking water in, and sewage water out for the town's businesses and residences. While the water service is now restored, the boil water advisory was only lifted in the evening of Friday, August 14, the very same day Prime Minster Harper was doing his annual photo-op in the North along with Conservative candidate Leona Aglukkaq.

Judging by comments on Nunatsiaq Online, a weekly newspaper based in Iqaluit, local residents are none too impressed. Decrying everything from the lack of of money invested in ageing infrastructure, the new pool being built at a cost of $40 million, and politicians having a BBQ while folks have no water, they sound every bit like their counterparts down south, holding everyone from the municipal, territorial and federal governments to Prime Minster Harper responsible for the city's water woes.

"People without water, who gives a flying crap," says one. "Lets go to a BBQ with Leona and Harper."

Yet, providing drinking water to the frozen north is no walk in the park. The city of Iqaluit sits 63. 4 ° north of the equator. Well outside the Arctic Circle and far south of Canada's northernmost hamlet of Grise Fjord (76°), it has a typically Arctic climate with cold winters and short summers that are too cool to permit the growth of trees.

Yet, even by those standards, Iqaluit was hard hit in 2015. The winter was bitterly cold with temperatures reaching -43° Celsius on January 26, shutting down schools, daycares, and even freezing water and sewage trucks off the road. And so far, spring and summer have brought little relief, as the city continues to grapple with cool and grey weather.

The population of Iqaluit is around 8,000 but only 6,500 are served by the municipal distribution system, the remaining residents are serviced by water trucks that bring in water and take out sewage.

"Distributing drinking water in northern communities is very costly," says Matthew Hang, Iqaluit's Director of Public Works. " While older utilidor systems in the North were built above ground, our system is buried underground, as are most newer utilidor systems. So when it comes to digging up pipes to fix breaks, it's no easy matter because even in the middle of summer the permafrost reaches 2 metres underground."

According to Hamp, stopping the water from freezing in the pipes is a constant battle, and several re-circulating lines and re-heat stations are needed along the system to keep the water at a minimum of 7 degrees Celsius and maintain a continuous flow of water.

"The area where the break occurred has some of the oldest pipes in our system," he says. "Those pipes were put in 30 years ago, somewhere around 1980, and we could not find any replacement parts to fix the breaks and re-fit the pipes. We tried several fabricated solutions but they would not hold. We finally came up with one and it seems to be holding for now, but it's definitely a short-term solution. We will need to update the lines in the near future."

On August 14, Hamp also told Nunatsiq News that "Iqaluit’s recent water woes were caused by cracks “all the way through” a service line that the Nunavut Housing Corp. failed to properly cap."

Nunavut is Canada's newest, northernmost and least populated territory. Vast and scattered over thousands of islands, the territory has only recently put in place a water reporting system for its larger communities, and it takes it very seriously. Most citizen complaints had more to do with the lack of proper communications from the city. Although a PSA was posted on Iqaluit 's Facebook page and website, many residents didn't know trucks were delivering water to the affected neighbourhoods.

Lorraine Hébert - who runs the Snack, a popular local diner - was one of them. "It's simply inhuman to leave the population to fend for themselves," she says in an email to Water Today. "In all other cities across Canada when such an ordeal takes place, the city quickly sets up a water station, where all have access to water. They even provide bottled water for families to, at the very least, have drinking water."

With the help of her staff, Hébert managed to keep the Snack open throughout the water shortage, using bottled water for everything from coffee to pails in the bathroom.

While communications lines might have been muddled, Hebert had only praise for Nunavut Health and other city services.

"I would like to thank health services who are present and vigilant during this whole ordeal, as well as the city's employees who are working till all hours of the night. Above all i want to thank the staff of the snack for their patience ,their hard work and their commitment" she says in an email.

Water was not the only issue plaguing the Snack in recent weeks. To make a bad situation even worse, Hébert says that because her sealift was frozen in for six weeks, she had to pay a plane to fly in supplies every week, even though she could see "the damned boat in the bay".

According to Nunatsiaq News, cargo, which is usually delivered in early July only started slowly trickling off sealift vessels and into Iqaluit in the first week of August after heavy ice in Frobisher Bay finally started to drift away.

Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers usually help sealift vessels and tankers navigate through treacherous ice and into northern communities in early July, but this year none were readily available.

While he CCGS Terry Fox was sent to Newfoundland to prepare for a mission to claim seabed rights for Canada in the High Arctic, near the North Pole, the only other available icebreaker, the smaller CCGS Amundsen, which is outfitted to accommodate Arctic research, had to be rerouted from its planned research mission to replace the Terry Fox and help sealift vessels navigate through the dense and dangerous ice.

So it goes.

In spite of millions pledged and many promises made, Canada has yet to see the shadow of a new icebreaker built to support its ambitious Arctic claims and help its isolated northern population.

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