Canada: Water crisis puts first nations families at risk
June 7, Toronto: Canada has abundant water, yet water in many indigenous communities in Ontario is not safe to drink, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on Tuesday. The water on which many First Nations communities in Canada, on lands known as reserves, depend is contaminated, hard to access, or toxic due to faulty treatment systems. The federal and provincial governments need to take urgent steps to address their role in this crisis.
The 92-page report, “Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis,” documents the impacts of serious and prolonged drinking water and sanitation problems for thousands of indigenous people – known as “First Nations” – living on reserves. It assesses why there are problems with safe water and sanitation on reserves, including a lack of binding water quality regulations, erratic and insufficient funding, faulty or sub-standard infrastructure, and degraded source waters. The federal government’s own audits over two decades show a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation for reserves.
Across Canada today, there are 133 advisories in place in 89 First Nations reserves warning that the water is not safe to drink. Most of them are concentrated in Ontario. These drinking water advisories – some in place for decades – represent the worst examples of systemic water and wastewater challenges facing First Nations in Canada. Canadian off-reserve communities have nowhere near this level of risk to their water; their systems are subject to regulations, and long-term water advisories are far rarer.
As part of its research, HRW conducted a survey of 99 households, home to 352 people, in five First Nations communities in Ontario, and 111 qualitative interviews. The report analyzes data from government sources on water and wastewater assets, budget allocations, and water advisories. In total, Human Rights Watch compiled government data for 191 water systems among 137 communities belonging to 133 distinct First Nations in Ontario.
The water crisis on reserves decreases the quality and quantity of water available for drinking and hygiene. Many households surveyed by Human Rights Watch reported problems related to skin infections, eczema, psoriasis, or other skin problems that they believed were related to or exacerbated by the water conditions in their home.
Many respondents said that federal departments or First Nations authorities had alerted them to contaminants in their water, including: coliform, Escherichia coli (E. coli), cancer-causing Trihalomethanes, and uranium. Negative health consequences from exposure to such contaminants can range from serious gastrointestinal disorders to increased risk of cancer.
Families reported changing hygiene habits, including limiting baths or showers for children, based on concerns about water quality. Caregivers shouldered extra burdens to ensure that children, elders, and others avoided exposure to unsafe water.
The federal government, which has jurisdiction over reserves, has not taken appropriate action to ensure that residents on First Nations reserves benefit from equal protection before the law. While off-reserve communities benefit from binding water quality regulations, there are no enforceable water regulations on reserves.
The federal government, which provides financial support for First Nations water systems for design, construction, operation, and maintenance, has funded and advised on design for systems on First Nations reserves that fell below the standards that applied in neighboring communities. Some of these water systems were soon placed under water advisories, including some within two years of construction. An additional one in five people in Ontario on reserves get their water from private wells, many that are also contaminated.
Canada’s longstanding failure to issue regulations for First Nations reserves, or offer equivalent oversight when all other Canadians enjoy such protections, is discriminatory and violates the rights of First Nations persons to equality before the law, Human Rights Watch said.
In March 2016, the Trudeau government announced new commitments and funds to bring the water and wastewater systems in First Nations communities up to the standard of comparable communities off reserve within five years. This is a positive sign – but it is not the first time the government has pledged money to fix these problems. Past investments involving billions of dollars failed to remedy systemic problems with water and wastewater on reserves. They were erratic and plagued by arbitrary allocation formulas, failure to spend available funds, and rigid caps that ignored population growth, uneven resources, and differences among reserves. The current government should learn from past failures, and meaningfully engage with First Nations as it works to make good on its promises.
The crisis also impacts the cultural rights of First Nations communities. Their water ceremonies, customary fishing and hunting practices, and ways of teaching children and sharing traditional knowledge about water are impacted when water is contaminated. International law recognizes indigenous peoples’ right to maintain and strengthen their spiritual relationship with traditionally owned or occupied lands, territories, waters, and other resources, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations.
Moreover, source waters for First Nations water supply are increasingly degraded by industrial activities, agricultural run-off, and waste-disposal practices off reserves, yet First Nations leaders said that the provincial and federal governments have not involved them in source water management.
The Oslo Times/HRW