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An Arctic Community Is in Danger of Running Out of Fresh Water

Iqaluit is a booming Arctic city.

by Lisa Cumming
Jun 12 2017, 8:06pm

Iqaluit, Nunavut. Image: Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons

Iqaluit, the capital of the northern territory of Nunavut, has the fastest-growing population in Canada's Arctic. Yet the community of 7,000 is in danger of running out of fresh water, despite the city's efforts to find a secondary water source, according to a new study published today in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research.

Lead author Andrew Scott Medeiros, a geography professor at York University in Toronto, once lived in Iqaluit, and is an expert in fresh water and the Arctic. "When I went to walk outside with my dog, the rivers and streams were dry," he said in a phone interview with Motherboard.

Part of the problem is that Iqaluit's water system is rapidly aging, Medeiros said. The water is pumped from Lake Geraldine, then treated and sent through pipes into the city. Those pipes bleed a lot of water and, on top of that, climate change is impacting how much—or rather, how little—water is entering the system, according to him.

"The climate in the North is changing," Medeiros said. Now the snow is melting too quickly to sustain the community through summer, he explained, and weather patterns are shifting. As a result, access to freshwater is becoming strained.

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In 2015, Iqaluit decided to tap the Apex River to help ease the burden on Lake Geraldine. In the study, Medeiros and co-authors used hydrologic monitoring and climate forecasts to see what could happen over the next 20 years in the Apex River as the water is diverted for drinking. Medeiros' study suggests that this source will only supply water to Iqaluit for the next two years, if the city follows guidelines set out by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The study found that without any action taken, fresh water could become scarce by 2024 because of climate change and growing demand.

It isn't the first time Iqaluit's problems with drinking water have been highlighted. A report released last year found that, under extreme climate conditions, Iqaluit could reach critical water shortages in the next five years. (Medeiros was also a co-author on that report.)

Mackenzie River, Northwest Territories. Image: Tessa MacIntosh/WWF

Meanwhile, David Miller, president and CEO of environmental nonprofit WWF-Canada, is calling for a national system to track fresh water health, which we currently lack, off a new WWF report highlighting some of the dangers that this country's fresh water bodies are facing.

"There's a real opportunity for leaders to insure that there are national standards and [to implement] a database about the health of fresh water," Miller told Motherboard. "To have a national agency—for example, Statistics Canada—to help keep an open database that's publicly accessible."

I asked Medeiros if something like a national system could help Arctic communities including Iqaluit. (He told me helped with some of the initial statements on the WWF report.)

Medeiros said that Arctic communities are at different places in terms of their needs. To him, what communities like Iqaluit need are local, targeted action to protect their drinking water in years to come—crucial as climate change puts increasing pressure on the North.

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