Canada has the second highest per capita water consumption in the world. However, little is known about complex socio-economic and cultural dynamics of water insecurities in Aboriginal communities and multiple health consequences. The majority of the studies have concentrated on the very simplified interpretation of accessibility, availability and quality issues, including some common water-borne infections as only health outcomes. Thus, several government initiatives on potable water supply, particularly for the remotely located Aboriginal communities, have failed to sustain and to promote healthy living.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a pattern of water access and quality problems in Aboriginal communities in Labrador. There are few publications on drinking water quality, health risks and community perspectives in these communities. Hence, there is a lack of adequate planning to sustainably manage water resources in Aboriginal communities. This serious issue was the starting point for our study. We aimed to understand the multiple dimensions and effects of long-term water insecurity in a remote Aboriginal community in Labrador and identify coping strategies and associated health risks.
The study was based on a community-based survey in Black Tickle, located on Island of Ponds off the Labrador Coast. It is a Southern Inuit community of about 138 people, almost all of whom are members of the NunatuKavut Community Council. It is one of the remotest Inuit communities of Labrador. The community lacks running water, and there is no available system to monitor the quality of water sources (wells, ponds, springs, ice, etc.) on a regular basis. We conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews and focus group discussions with the community leaders, elders, the community nurse, women, and high school students. All the water sources were visited and their physical, chemical and microbiological parameters tested.
The community did not have any piped water supply. Their regular sources of water consisted of several unmonitored local streams, brooks, and ponds. The public water system was not affordable to the majority of community members who solely depended on government aid. Animal fecal contamination and the presence of disinfection by-products were the major quality issues. Per capita water consumption was less than one-third of the Canadian national average, severely compromising personal hygiene and food security, especially diet. High-sugar content beverages were the commonest alternative solution, particularly (for children), and the apparent high prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the community was believed to be amongst the possible consequences. Virtually every man in the community suffered from chronic back and shoulder injuries that the community believed were associated with carrying heavy water buckets every day.
Our findings show that the water insecurity in remote Aboriginal communities can result in multidimensional consequences including adverse health, economic, social and cultural impacts. Therefore, a regular supply of affordable, safe drinking water would have far-reaching benefits to the communities.