In April 2016, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Attawapiskat, declared a state of emergency after 100 people, including children, tried to kill themselves.
This epidemic has developed as a result of several complex compounded issues including poverty, poor housing, low wages, high rates of alcoholism, a lack of funding for mental health services, and poor water quality to name a few. In fact, water issues in Attawapiskat involving supply, treatment and distribution have been in a dire state for at least 20 years.
In Attawapiskat, the water supply comes from an inland lake (slough), northwest of the community; though previously it had come from Attawapiskat River and Monument Channel. Concerns have been continuously raised regarding the inland lake as the water source regarding the level of organic matter in the water and that water flow was non-existent in the winter months due freezing. During the winter, iron and manganese concentrations are a problem as well. When the ice freezes, contaminants are excluded from the ice and are concentrated in the remaining water, increasing the concentrations in the drinkable water.
Though contaminants could be taken care of through the water treatment process, the community’s plant was built in 1991 and is failing to deliver safe potable water.
On March 22 2016, World Water Day, the government of Canada committed $4.6 billion to be invested in infrastructure in Indigenous communities over the next years, including for water and wasteland.
Despite these promises, in December 2016 an environmental group called the Wildlands League, reported that the diamond mining company De Beers failed to report a chemical spill 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat. The spill contained toxic levels of mercury and methylmercury in the creek surrounding the mine.
Wildlands League alleges that De Beers has failed to properly report on mercury levels from five of nine surface water monitoring stations from 2009 to 2016, which is a violation of the mine’s condition to operate; a violation under Ontario’s Water Resources Act.
The federal government must continue to act with urgency to address these issues and provide safe drinking water for populations living in Attawapiskat. Until the government begins responding to these crises with rigorous monitoring and dedicated funding necessary changes will not happen. While this is frustrating to communities, citizen-based monitoring technologies could provide the data necessary to pressure governments to act. Devices such as Ambience Data’s Sparrow or Starling can attach to water quality and waste water sensors to alert communities of contaminated water.