People living on reserves in Canada shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the federal government’s promise to give them clean tap water in the next five years, says a new report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
In their 2015 throne speech, the Liberals pledged $1.8 billion to end long-term boil water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years. But the minimum capital investment needed to keep that promise is $3.2 billion, according to a report released Thursday by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) which provides independent analysis of government finances.
That $3.2 billion includes $1.8 billion for drinking water systems and another $1.4 billion for wastewater systems. Both are needed to solve the crisis, and the government has not budgeted enough to finance them.
Current government spending allocated to solve the water crisis will, at most, only cover 70 percent of the total investment needs, depending on population growth.
The PBO’s analysis adds to concerns outlined in a 2011 Indigenous Affairs report that found it would cost $5 billion over 10 years to upgrade water systems, with $1.2 billion needed immediately to get First Nations up to government standards.
“This is a very important report and we obviously welcome it, and the additional information it provides,” minister of Indigenous services Jane Philpott told reporters Thursday. “…It highlights the tremendous amount of work that has to be done.
“Our commitment is firm and Canadians need to understand that we are absolutely steadfast in our commitment to make sure that all long term drinking water advisories in public systems on reserve will be lifted by March of 2021,” she said.
“Even if the federal commitment is fulfilled, there may remain inadequate [water] infrastructure.”
As of October 31, there were 167 water advisories on First Nations south of the 60th parallel, according to numbers from Health Canada and the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority. The 60th parallel separates the territories and a small sliver of northern Quebec from the rest of Canada.
The number of drinking water advisories has barely changed since Trudeau took office, a VICE News fact check in September found — underlining the gravity of the problem.
For decades, First Nations across the country have endured undrinkable tap water, meaning they have to boil their water before consuming it, or rely on bottled water rations paid for by Indigenous Affairs. In some communities, showering in the water causes skin rashes and boils.
The problem stems from neglect of crumbling water infrastructure, or poorly planned and constructed water systems. On top of that, there are no enforceable regulations for water on reserve.
“The estimated capital and operating and maintenance (O&M) costs are considerably more than the actual and planned Aboriginal governments’ funding for First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure,” the PBO said.
The water crisis is an issue VICE News has followed closely, with three documentaries on the issue, and an investigation into the crisis published in September. At a VICE Canada town hall before the election Trudeau made his first promise to end all water advisories on First Nations across Canada.
But Thursday’s PBO report emphasized a big problem with the prime minister’s pledge.
“Importantly, this federal commitment only related to those systems financially supported by INAC [the Department of Indigenous Affairs],” the report states. “While INAC financially supports most systems on reserve, it does not support all systems. As such, even if the federal commitment is fulfilled, there may remain inadequate infrastructure.”