Skip to main content

The Arctic Council Could Be a Leader in Promoting the Right to Water

Arctic Council Could Be a Leader in Promoting the Right to Water

August 21, 2017

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By Rachel Freeman-Blakeslee 

The Arctic landscape is a repository of freshwater, with its abundant ice, snow, lakes, streams, and ocean. However, despite the vast resources available, Arctic communities have long borne the brunt of severe inequalities in access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. No single government is responsible for addressing these inequities across the eight Arctic countries, making the Arctic Council uniquely positioned to work toward the improvement of water and sanitation services for Northern communities.

Water scarcity, poor water quality, and a lack of basic sanitation services are not limited to the Arctic; this is a chronic problem in many parts of the world. The United Nations has recognized the gravity of this crisis for decades, but its most recent efforts have focused on a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that seeks to ensure access to water and sanitation for all by 2030. Launched in 2016, the U.N.’s 17 SDGs serve as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” The SDGs make an ambitious commitment to be truly universal, with no group or region left behind.

Despite the intent to apply the SDGs to all countries and communities, the scale at which the goals are implemented poses a challenge. Policies to enact and monitor the SDG targets are made at the global and national level, and often do not accurately capture the conditions of small, rural populations when they differ from national trends. As such, many remote Arctic communities remain underrepresented, with their needs unmet.

Water, Water Everywhere

The eight countries with territory in the Arctic are all considered developed nations, leading SDG progress. But upon assessing the state of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in the Circumpolar North, stark deficiencies become apparent, especially in the Arctic communities of Canada, the United States, Russia, and Greenland.

Inadequate WASH infrastructure is acknowledged as a contributor to increased outbreaks of disease. Ineffective distribution methods make it difficult to meet basic water consumption needs for families in remote Arctic locations. Twenty percent of Alaskan communities, for example, lack in-home piping and have to haul their own water back to their residences. This severely limits the amount of water available for personal hygiene, leading to a higher incidence of skin, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections. Similarly, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic has some of the highest rates of gastrointestinal infection in the world due to poor water quality. In the Inuit communities of Nunavik, Canada, even chlorine-treated water stored for future consumption in household tanks has been found to contain high levels of coliform and E. coli contamination, caused by insufficient cleaning or maintenance.

National data tracking SDG progress fails to account for the state of WASH infrastructure in many parts of the Arctic. Data on the deficiencies in WASH services in rural and remote communities get lumped in with national estimates. Not only do the WASH-related inequities of small Arctic populations get lost in national averages, but this methodology also fails to capture the trends and problems of the Arctic as a region unto itself. Yet the marked lack of Arctic WASH data presents a unique opportunity for the Arctic Council to help close this gap.

Arctic Council Working Toward WASH

Similar in purpose to the United Nations, the Arctic Council is an intergovernmental organization that promotes cooperation among the Arctic states and their inhabitants. As such, the Arctic Council focuses primarily on providing a forum for dialogue and pursuing scientific research that can inform policy. The Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), following global trends, has recently turned its attention toward the growing threats of water scarcity, poor water quality, and inadequate sanitation, launching the 2015-2017 Improving Health through Safe and Affordable Access to Household Running Water and Sewer project. Focusing on water-related challenges in Arctic and sub-Arctic communities, this project launched a survey, reaching out to the region’s professionals, experts, and community members regarding the state of WASH services. While the survey results are preliminary, initial responses confirm the inadequacy of water and sanitation access, as well as the negative impact of climate change on services in many Arctic communities, as water sources dry up or become contaminated, and intense storms damaged infrastructure. The project also co-organized two conferences—the International Conference Sanitation in Cold Climate Regions, held in Sismiut, Greenland, in April 2016, and Water Innovations for Healthy Arctic Homes, held in Anchorage, Alaska, in September 2016.

The September conference in particular provides valuable insight into the emerging role of the Arctic Council in WASH research. Sponsored by the state of Alaska and the U.S. government, the event featured over 40 presenters. The attendees represented a myriad of countries and backgrounds, including Arctic indigenous communities, Arctic Council member states, and federal and state organizations. The ability of the SDWG to connect such a diverse range of individuals and groups indicates its potential capacity to reach populations that are currently left out of national WASH implementation and monitoring mechanisms.

The conference was also distinguished by the research and data it produced on Arctic WASH issues. Not only was a wealth of knowledge exchanged among participants of the conference, all of which has been compiled and published in a publicly accessible document, but a number of recommendations were also made for future circumpolar cooperation. Participants proposed that Arctic states work through the SDWG’s Arctic Human Health Expert Group to track and share data about WASH conditions in Arctic communities. They also suggested that the Arctic Council continue to create forums for the region’s residents to share their own innovations and climate change adaptation strategies. Finally, attendees emphasized the need for Arctic states to adopt Arctic-specific water quality and quantity standards required for the health of northern communities.

The work conducted by the SDWG and subsequent recommendations made by conference participants not only reflect the Arctic Council’s recognition of the need for more Arctic-centric data but also actively try to fill those gaps. Universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation may seem like a lofty vision, but the SDWG’s WASH project has begun to make valuable contributions, most notably through the production of knowledge to inform national governments on how to improve services for often-neglected Arctic populations. This initiative demonstrates the potential for the Arctic Council to use its unique position in the region to support the right to clean water and sanitation for all Arctic peoples.



Rachel Freeman-Blakeslee is a master’s candidate at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, specializing in water policy, environmental justice, and health inequities. She is the recipient of a 2016–17 foreign language and area studies fellowship for the study of French through the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Find the introductory article for this series here.

[Photo courtesy of National Park Service]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.