Northern Indigenous communities’ use and perceptions of drinking water

In Indigenous communities that have lacked access to safe water for years, getting access to a safe water supply is crucial. However, perceptions of the water supply—not just how it tastes and smells, but also trust in the source’s safety—affect consumption.

It is estimated that Canada is in eighth position of the most renewable freshwater resources per capita on the planet. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to safe drinking water. In particular, water security is a challenge for Indigenous communities. Twenty-eight First Nations still have long-term drinking water advisories, meaning no home access to safe drinking water. 

This lack of safe water may be linked to indirect adverse health effects. These include things like drinking sweetened beverages as an alternative to water, and not being able to achieve optimal hygiene or prevention of infection transmission (for example, hand washing to prevent COVID-19). It is also associated with the environmental burden of things—like single-use plastic bottles—as well as economic, socialcultural and spiritual impacts.

Limited access to safe drinking water

In December 2021, a compensation process was authorized for those who suffered from a lack of reliable access to clean water, resulting in an $8-billion settlement. The federal government has promised to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations communities by 2025, after failing to achieve this by the previous deadline of March 2021.

The perception of tap water

After decades of not having access to safe water, Potlotek First Nation (Nova Scotia) now has a proper water treatment plant. However, because of their experiences with unsafe water, residents still have concerns and are skeptical about the safety of the water. Similar concerns about drinking water quality have been reported as far away as remote Indigenous communities of Australia

Taste and smell are the main factors impacting the perception of water and consumption practices. We may think that remote northern Indigenous communities have more trust in their tap water, as they have access to pure water far from urban centers. Two of the top 10 biggest lakes on the planet are found in northern Canada, in the Northwest Territories, home of only about 45,000 residents

However, resource development and climate change, colonial relations and historical polluting industrial activities may have contributed to the perception of low-quality water in remote communities, resulting in low trust in the drinking water supply.


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