Issues – What’s at stake? Clean water for all

January 17, 2019

Clean Water for All is a Human Right

Prince Rupert’s continuing boil water notice entered its fifth week last Friday. Even if the notice is lifted soon, it remains possible that future notices may continue – for some time. That’s because the conditions underlying the notice are due to an ongoing, and so far not fully funded, public infrastructure project that may take years to complete.

This emergency has served as more than a wakeup call for the 12,000 residents of our northern British Columbia town – located within the territory of the Tsimshian Nation. It’s also wake up call for everyone in Canada, a country where too many must go without access to clean drinking water.

The Prince Rupert boil water notice is also a wake up call for the country to act now – to ensure that clean water is accessible for everyone. For many Canadians, clean drinking water is simply taken for granted. If you are thirsty, you just turn on the tap in your home. But within Canada, in far too many First Nations communities beyond Prince Rupert, this is not always the case.

Prince Rupert: Not the First, Not the Only, Not the Worst

When confronted by an urban clean water crisis like the one facing Prince Rupert today, we must not forget that throughout Canada there are already hundreds of First Nations communities that are routinely and continually under boil water notices. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, there were 151 drinking water advisories in effect in First Nations across the country – as recently as 2016.

In fact, some First Nations boil water advisories have been in effect for more than 20 years. In one instance, the Nazdo First Nation in B.C. had been unable to drink its water due to a 17-year-advisory that their water was contaminated by high levels of arsenic and manganese. Thousands of Indigenous people, living in their traditional territories across the country, must go without access to clean drinking water, simply because the required public infrastructure is missing. Despite federal promises to address the crisis, there is still much progress to be made.

Prince Rupert’s ongoing boil water notice not only reminds us all of how much we depend on clean water, but also on how much we depend on all levels of government to make clean water accessible for everyone. There are communities throughout Canada that don’t have clean water for years. These communities face far worse situations than the ongoing five weeks of no clean water for Prince Rupert residents, but what if the crisis in this northern town continues?

What If this Crisis Doesn’t “Simply Go Away?”

While seemingly unlikely, there is a very real risk that the city could face years, perhaps longer, of no or limited access to the clean water that everyone needs. That’s because the city’s government recently moved its water source from Woodworth Lake, a high elevation lake that had served as the city’s primary clean water source for nearly 40 years. According to City officials, the lake’s high altitude location made it less less susceptible to natural sources of potential contamination. In 2016 the municipal government switched water sources, from Woodworth Lake to Shawatlan Lake. The new source is at a lower elevation.

According to city officials, this switch was made to accommodate infrastructure upgrades. But full funding for these upgrades is still uncertain. Moving to the lower elevation lake for the city’s water may be the reason (plus unexpected weather events this past summer and fall) for the boil water notice to be required. The human decisions for how to proceed on these upgrades factor into 12,000 residents going without clean water. City residents are now wondering if these factors will continue to erode public infrastructure.

Prince Rupert is hopeful that the boil notice will end soon, and that the problem will not become a recurring one. But if neither works out, and the city ends up with either years of no clean water or a seemingly endless cycle of boil-on and boil-off notices, then this northern city will join the ranks of other Canadian towns and villages that must manage under sustained boil water conditions. The question of whether or not Prince Rupert is next in line to join Canada’s long term boil-water communities – no matter how slight a risk – is an open one. People here are rightfully afraid of this possibility, so much so that even talking about has become taboo in many circles.

Hard to Imagine – Best to Prepare

It’s hard to imagine a Canadian city of 12,000 people going without clean water for years – perhaps even decades. But ask anyone in any other First Nations city, town, or village, one that’s already been under a boil water notice for years or decades, and I think they’d say that it’s not too hard to imagine at all. And if even Prince Rupert gets its water system back up and running, what does this say about us a country? Water for some, but not all, is not humane or responsible. It’s simply wrong and deplorable. We – all of us living in Canada – deserve better.