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Water Scarcity in Rural Alaska is Worsening with Climate Change

In rural Alaska, water scarcity is not new, but the condition is worsening along with climate change.

Image Credit: McGill University.

Sustainable solutions should promote the usage of alternative water supplies such as gray water recycling and rainwater catchment. In addition, they should deal with the affordability of water with respect to household income, stated McGill University scientists.

Using clean water to wash hands is something that a majority of people take for granted, but this not usually the case for rural residents of Alaska. While paying for water by the gallon, people think seriously about how much is utilized—even at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Management, in several rural Alaskan communities, where household income is low and jobs are insufficient, the cost of water tends to be a huge burden.

Households in Anchorage paid nearly five dollars per 1000 gallons in 2017, while residents in more remote areas paid ten times as much.

Antonia Sohns, Study Co-Author and PhD Candidate, McGill University

Sohns is a PhD candidate under McGill Professor Jan Adamowski.

Living on Less Than 6 L of Water a Day

As a result of the expensive nature of water and difficulties in accessing it, rural Alaskan homes without piped water make use of 5.7 L of water per person daily, on an average—much lower than the World Health Organization standard of 20 L per person per day, and considerably less than the average of 110 L per person per day in similar regions such as Nunavut, Canada.

As climate change manifests rapidly across the Arctic, the challenges that households face in securing sufficient water supplies for their daily needs becomes even more difficult.

Antonia Sohns, Study Co-Author and PhD Candidate, McGill University

Worsening impacts of climate change such as storm surges and coastal erosion are affecting water sources that communities rely on, resulting in a broken infrastructure and saltwater intrusion into drinking water.

Funding should be made available to address climate change impacts to water systems and to support adaptation strategies adopted by communities,” stated Adamowski of the Department of Bioresource Engineering.

Water Quality, but not Quantity?

At present, there are no existing water quantity standards, but there are water quality standards. Modifications to such regulations could reinforce access to water and enhance the health of rural Alaskans.

The researchers of this study feel that part of the solution could be to encourage household-level strategies and altering how water is offered from conventional pipes to non-conventional systems. This involves increasing financial support for alternative water systems such as gray water recycling and reuse or rainwater catchment.

Such solutions might not fulfill potable water standards at the federal or state level, but they could considerably enhance the quality of life in several communities, stated the researchers. Governments must think about decreasing difficult needs to enable the building of less expensive water systems on the way to a completely compliant system.

Moreover, the team adds that infrastructure projects must consider local preferences, belief structure, and community capacity. Insufficient access to water is a constant challenge in more than 200 rural communities, whose residents are mainly native people of Alaska.

We can’t overlook the importance of different perceptions of water due to cultural preference. Many households continue to gather drinking water from sources that are culturally significant such as rivers, lakes, ice, or snowmelt. In considering such factors, approaches will be more long-lasting and resilient.

Antonia Sohns, Study Co-Author and PhD Candidate, McGill University

Journal Reference:

Sohns, A., et al. (2021) Participatory Modeling of Water Vulnerability in Remote Alaskan Households Using Causal Loop Diagrams. Environmental Management.

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