Dozens of households in one Anishinaabe community in Manitoba are still dealing with a lack of access to clean water despite receiving extensive water and infrastructure upgrades funded by the federal government nearly three years ago, according to the community’s leadership.
“Why put a great new treatment plant with clean drinking water when you can’t still hook up the community?” asks Hollow Water First Nation Chief Larry Barker, who said he won’t rest until the entire community is connected to the plant.
Hollow Water First Nation is located approximately 217 kilometres north of Winnipeg and resides on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
After decades of relying on an outdated water treatment plant, the community received upgrades to its plant in 2018 through a $9.5 million investment by the federal government, allowing most homes to be connected to the main water line, including the school.
However, of the approximately 300 homes in Hollow Water, about 50 are still not connected to the main water line and are using cisterns.
An investigation by a consortium including APTN News and Global News, led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ), has found that across the country, new investments in water infrastructure have not been sufficient to connect every home to the community’s main waterline. Leaders like Chief Barker are calling on the federal government to do more.
First Nations communities in the prairie provinces often rely on cisterns, or water tanks as they’re more commonly known, to receive what is supposed to be clean drinking water.
However, research suggests cisterns are at a higher risk of developing bacterial toxins when not cleaned properly or frequently.
“Cisterns need regular inspections and they need regular cleaning and that’s not happening. The budgets are not there to provide that service,” said Shirley Thompson, an assistant professor at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba.
Even something as simple as a leaf getting into a cistern can lead to contamination, Thompson explained. The soil from the leaf can ferment resulting in bacteria growth in the cistern.
“Then it becomes a bacterial soup. So contamination is very frequent and much higher than piped water and it’s unacceptable,” said Thompson.
Lisa Raven has lived in Hollow Water for most of her life. Her family has relied on a cistern for 15 years. She said her cistern hasn’t been cleaned in about seven years. Because of this, she chooses not to drink the water coming out of her taps, instead relying on bottled water for consumption and cooking.
“We didn’t even realize it [the cleaning] stopped until it was probably three years later, and then we started to realize that there’s sediment in the bottom of our tank,” said Raven.
“If you’re putting that clean water into a dirty tank, then it kind of defeats the purpose of that.”
The Raven family may not drink the water but they feel the effects of the suspected contamination in other ways.
Both Raven and her son are dealing with skin conditions that have developed in the last three years. While her doctor hasn’t connected the conditions to their water, Raven believes her eczema is from using the water for bathing purposes.
Chief Barker understands the concerns residents have. He is also on a cistern.
“We still feel that we’re not getting the proper drinking water because it stays in the tanks and it’s transported. It can be contaminated in some way. So we don’t bother; we still boil our water,” he said.
“When their water tank gets empty, they have to stop using water, because the truck doesn’t deliver when somebody wants it. They’re on a schedule,” Barker said.
Children grow up learning not to trust what comes out of the taps despite getting a brand new treatment plant.
“We’re scared to drink it, even though it’s cleaner than before,” Barker said.
A job left unfinished
Chief Barker says though the federal government has removed the long-term boil water advisory in his community that had lasted from December 2016 to May 2018, that work is not done until all homes are connected.
“Canada thinks that they should pull that boil water alert. And I made issues about it,” said Chief Barker. “I sent notice to them, we are not finished.”
“I’m dissatisfied that they put a Band-Aid solution and putting (in) holding tanks,” Barker said.
The government says that decisions around installing pipes to homes versus cistern systems are generally made based on 20-year life cycle cost, “the most economically feasible, physically appropriate system to meet the water and wastewater needs of the community in question shall be chosen.” The department says that to be considered for conventional high-pressure piped water, lot frontages in the community shall average no more than 30 metres.
“I know that in our discussion in and around lifting long-term water advisories, there have been corresponding concerns as to the upgrade of the distribution systems,” federal Minister of Indigenous Services Canada Marc Miller said in a January interview with the consortium.
“We do know that there is still work in need to be done in communities with respect to piping.”
Minister Miller said the federal government takes several items into consideration when making the decision to lift boil water advisories, including overall wellness of the community, critical infrastructure assets, and leadership advocacy for federal investments.
“We don’t go into communities and say, this is your problem and this is how you’re going to fix it,” Minister Miller said.
“It is a much more complex and in fact, enriching engagement. Where we look at community planning, look at what their needs are, look at what the advocacy is, and see how we can best address a number of the needs.”
Cisterns and COVID-19
An analysis by a consortium led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism has found that Indigenous communities where some residents rely on cisterns have experienced twice the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19. Using data, access to information requests and Esri ArcGIS technology, the team found that the risk of an outbreak in these communities remained elevated across analyses that took into account the number of people living on reserve and housing density, though the dataset was not large enough to rule out those two factors entirely.
The team found that the statistical risk of a COVID outbreak in these communities was independent of the number of people living on reserve and reported housing density.
The resulting dataset was confirmed to be reliable by Shirley Thompson.
“So the first aspect is the quality of water, high bacterial contamination with cisterns and it resulting in diarrhoea but also other diseases and in stomach cancer,” Thompson said, adding that the second aspect is that people can not properly wash their hands or sanitize, an major issue during a global pandemic.
“So you pass on all sorts of viral infections as a result and that’s why under COVID we’re saying wash your hands, wash your hands. Wash your hands frequently,” she said.
“But if you turn on the tap and there’s nothing there because the cistern hasn’t been filled which is a frequent occurrence, then you can’t do that.”
Files from Patti Sonntag and Emma Wilkie (Institute for Investigative Journalism), Krista Hessey (Global News), Brittany Hobson (APTN News).
See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits and more information about the consortium here.
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University.
For tips on this story, please contact the reporters at: iij.tips(at)protonmail.com.