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Innovators Look For Water And Sewer Alternatives For Arctic Communities

Film Academy Students

It's expensive to provide water and sewer in rural areas, especially in the Arctic. That's true not only in Alaska, but all around the globe. Providing safe water and affordable waste disposal was at the center of a conference hosted in Anchorage last week by the Arctic Council.

The search is on for water and sewer systems that are cheap, simple, and durable, because the costs of conventional piped water systems are too high for most small arctic communities to maintain and operate.

Just building a conventional system in a tiny Alaskan village can cost upwards of $400,000 per home, which does not include the cost of operating and maintaining piped water systems.

"We never could afford that,” said Craig Fleener, Governor Bill Walker's advisor on Arctic Policies. “Although we were pouring money into it like we could. There are projects around the state that cost 10, 20, 30, 40 million dollars for communities of 100 and smaller people."

Many of these systems fail to keep in operation year-round.  They freeze up or break down in the winter, driving costs up further.

Teller, an Alaskan village that had a piped water and sewer system installed, found out in its first year that it could not afford to operate and maintain it.  The village shut it down and went back to hauling water and using honey buckets.  When they tried to turn the system back on, they discovered it would cost millions to repair.

Teller's story is typical of villages that have never had piped water systems. 

"So many times we have gotten our hopes up, thinking that we will have a project soon. But all we've had in planning and studies, and we've never had any projects,” said Blanche Okbaok-Garnie, Teller mayor.

During the conference, three teams of engineers in the State Water and Sewer Challenge unveiled prototypes of de-centralized systems designed to cut costs by recycling grey water (the relatively clean water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other appliances), and providing basic water and waste services on a house-by-house basis. The proposed ideas were not as expensive as conventional centralized piped water, but with costs of $125,000 and up, they were not cheap either. They were also complicated to operate and dependent on heat and electricity to keep running.  In Alaska's Arctic communities, electric outages are common and heat is often unreliable. 

Marie Grackana Kutcheak of Stebbins thinks that water and sewer should be subsidized the way electricity is in rural Alaska.

"The United States owes us the right to have this water clean,” Kutcheak said. “If they can go to Africa and Afghanistan and Iraq and just put water and sewer for their solders just to maintain their air forces, why can't they subsidize us?”

Part of the reason for the high cost of the prototypes is that villagers working with the teams want flush toilets. One prototype that was not part of the state challenge attracted interest from many villagers. Developed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) for Kivalina, it is known as the "pass system" and is portable, does not need electricity, and does not try to make a totally independent household system with recycled grey water. The Kivalina system provides services that have to be in the home to maintain proper hygiene: water to drink, wash hands, and cook with. The toilet is dry and separates the urine from feces, making handling waste easier and safer.  The cost of that system for a household is around $26,000.

Okbaok-Garnie from Teller saw that as affordable. "That's about what I paid for my car, and in so many years I paid it off," she said.

The Kivalina system addresses the major health issues in villages without running water. Those problems are outlined in a multi-year study of a group of villages in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, the Alaskan region with the largest cluster of communities without piped water and sewer.  Dr. Tom Hennessy with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Anchorage says that the study revealed that once those homes got running water, residents had fewer contagious infections, respiratory diseases, and skin problems.

"You have to have enough water for these hygienic activities so people feel like if they cough or sneeze they have some place they can go and wash their hands and get the germs off their hands before they spread them to other community or family members,” Hennessy said. "Water quantity is very important, we think, for the diseases that really are the big players in infections diseases; the ones we see much more commonly in rural Alaska."

Dr. Timothy Thomas of ANTHC helped conduct the study. Asked whether he thought healthier homes required high quality drinking water for all uses, the kind of services provided by conventional centralized water and sewer, he recalled his own childhood in Kenya where no one drank water from the spigot but instead used a separate filter.

"We knew as kids the only water that we drank was the water that came out of the water filter. You can separate it. And if you think about what you really need in the home versus what could be provided at a centralized facility, I think we could maximize a lot on the rainwater collection,” he said.

Climate change is adding new challenges for Alaska's arctic villages.  As the permafrost melts, the tundra ponds that many northern communities depend on for their water supply are drying up.  Jacqueline Shirley's family is from Hooper Bay. She noticed it this summer on a flight returning to the village.

"This time going back, I really noticed the lakes and how they were all dried up, and how they were all becoming new vegetation, and there's bright green circles everywhere," she said.

Climate change means communities need to not only worry about keeping their water systems working, they also need to make sure they have a good stable source for the water. Those systems that use river water are already seeing more silting, which adds costs by requiring that the filters be changed more often. 

Those attending the Anchorage conference say that none of this is insurmountable if you have the money. 

When asked if water and sewer systems were the government's responsibility, Dr. Thomas told the audience it was a moral responsibility.

"The rest of us are so privileged in having so much water,” Thomas said. “I don't think we really understand the struggles people have to go through to get water, and certainly in this country whether it's a moral obligation or an absolute right that people should have, I  think we need to make it happen for people."

The UN agrees. Member nations have set out to make sure everyone on the planet has access to safe drinking water, but there are a lot of different ways to do it.