Iqaluit: The True North Strong & Thirsty

Stephanie writes*

Climate change tells us the Earth is melting. For Canada’s economy, this damage has a silver lining: increased accessibility to the Arctic. Technology improvement in conjunction with more favorable climate means that there is new industrial potential for the Arctic. Canada is in disputes with Denmark, Russia, and the United States over who has territorial rights of the seabed, having officially submitted their argument to the UN in 2019. The federal government wants a stronger presence in the North to back up their claims. This formed their motivation for building Canada’s first deepsea arctic port in Iqaluit.

However in recent years, Iqaluit – the capital city of Nunavut, Canada’s largest northern territory – has been consistently making national news – not for its geopolitical significance in Canada’s territorial claims, but for its water shortages.

The past two summers Iqaluit has had to declare a water emergency. The city’s small population of 8,000 relies on one reservoir, Lake Geraldine, for its freshwater. Despite renovations in 2010 to increase its capacity, the summer of 2019 saw its record low. Both summers, the city had to issue car washing bans, PSAs pleading residents to take showers instead of baths, and in 2018 the opening of a brewery had to be delayed.

Maybe we should rephrase Benjamin Franklin’s famous quip: “When the beer shelves are empty, we know the worth of water”.

If the city’s water supply can’t provide for a small-scale brewery, how can it be expected to support the rapidly increasing population, never mind the country’s weighty political agenda?

A 2015 report said the reservoir has a capacity to support 8,300 people, but population is predicted to rise to 13,050 by 2030. The city’s water license has been amended to allow pumping from a neighboring watershed to the Lake Geraldine reservoir but only until 2026. Many fear this is just a band-aid fix to a greater issue: climate change.

Looking to the future, things get frightening:

  • The Arctic has experienced the most intense temperature increases in the world. An analysis of the last 30 years of meteorological data shows a 6.9% decrease in summer precipitation per decade in Iqaluit specifically. The Arctic relies almost exclusively on precipitation to recharge water supply, so headlines of “The Reservoir is at a Record Low” seem like they’ll become the new normal.
  • Permafrost is melting – leaving infrastructure in a precarious situation and literally draining lakes. Before the city sent a water task force to fix major leaks, it was claimed that “40% of the city’s drinkable water was wasted through aging infrastructure”.

With the environment changing so fast, how can a city of 8000 be expected to keep up?

Bottom Line: Canada’s political vision for this city is delusional when the constraints of water supply are considered.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Iqaluit: The True North Strong & Thirsty”

  1. Hi Steph! Nice blogpost. The way I understood it Iqaluit is experiencing water shortages because it depends on surface water and average precipitation is decreasing. And I guess any possible groundwater is frozen. I wonder if global heating could open up possibilities to extract groundwater? What about indigenous methods for supplying water? Is getting water via snow viable?

    1. Thanks Nik! From my understanding – because there will be less and less precipitation in the North, the frozen freshwater will increasingly become non-renewable. So using water from increasing snow melt is unsustainable. I cannot quote any academics to back this claim, but I want to go as far as labeling the snow/ice as an “above ground fossil aquifer”.
      Furthermore, the research on the arctic, and specifically melting permafrost, is quite limited. There are reports that the melting of permafrost drains lakes, as mentioned in my blog. Check out this crazy article from this super cool Canadian nonprofit news source:
      The direct impacts on Iqaluit are unknown, but I still found it very unsettling to say the least.
      In regards to the traditional Inuit knowledge systems on water management, they were nomads. So they did not put particular strain on specific watersheds. Furthermore, their population was less. I am currently trying to get in contact with knowledge keepers.

  2. Hi Stephanie, really nice post. The emphasis on the future of mater management because of climate change as well as the current issues at hand gave a really clear understanding of rapid climate change in the arctic and what that means for water. You mentioned the country’s weighty political agenda, and the current efforts of the city to conserve water. I’d be curious to know about the city governance and its relationship with the territory or the country at large. Are these smaller arctic communities getting any serious attention from the larger Canadian government or the nearby province? Also what problems or successes have the local government organizations run into while attempting to conserve water. Since Iqaluit is the capital, whatever measure they take could probably serve as an example for surrounding areas.

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