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Options for international policy to promote cooperation in Arctic infrastructure

June 27, 2019


Ann Carr

The Arctic’s growing importance on the global scene is driving the need for a unified organization and policy that will both protect the land and its people, as well as allow states to build infrastructural relationships that will economically benefit those involved, including Indigenous peoples. With an estimated “90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids,” according to the United States Geological Survey, the area has become the center of attention for countries that seek to exploit those natural resources. However, with oil demand expected to decline by 2035 and the permafrost making development difficult and expensive, other things are bringing attention to the Arctic. Some of these interests include fishing, shipping, and energy production.  Unfortunately, these interests pose a threat to the environment and Arctic residents if they are developed in an unchecked fashion. This outcome would negate the positive impacts of growth, such as an increasing availability to the market for the region.

Seeing as infrastructure is typically a domestic responsibility, I propose the creation of a new Indigenous peoples-centered group that will serve as a platform for them to advocate for their own needs and to voice their own concerns with regards to infrastructure and sustainable development.  This group would serve as a way for Indigenous to make infrastructural recommendations. It would to be to the advantage of the states to fund this venture because it would help lead to longer-lasting and therefore more cost effective infrastructure that better suits the needs of the inhabitants, while facilitating better local-to-government communication.

Current infrastructure is lacking. For example, there are currently no roads to Nunavut, an entire territory. Additionally, there are no roads between the 25 communities there. However, this fact is not due to a lack of effort on the part of the Canadian government. The Nunavut Department Economic Development and Transportation published a business case from Nishi-Khon/SNC Lavalin Ltd outlining the costs and benefits of an all-weather road connecting the two areas, formally recommending the road. It is projected to help drive down living costs and lessen the need for subsistence hunting by increasing food security. However, with a projected cost of $1.5 billion CAD and a timeline more than 20 years until completion, due in part to the large distances between communities, building this road is not going to happen in the near future. This example highlights how the geography of the Arctic shapes the infrastructure needed and the importance of the voices of the people who live there.

Two of the countries displaying their interest in the Arctic include the Russian Federation, which is an Arctic state, and China, which is not an Arctic state. Russia is currently trying to re-establish its dominance as a world power and part of the attempt to do so is a major increase in infrastructure spending. Despite the development leading to greater access to rural areas and communities, the development has come with its own set of issues. Paved roads accelerate permafrost thawing and are susceptible to damage. The railroads are deformed by the thawing and refreezing of the ground. Supply to the more remote communities is severely limited by these limitations. This example highlights the need for Indigenous input on infrastructure development that would benefit them for a greater proportion of the year and last longer. Additionally, China, which should be noted to not be an Arctic state or member of the Arctic Council, has announced plans for an “Arctic Silk Road” that would connect China with Europe and the Middle East via development of Arctic shipping routes.

With the increase in global interest in Arctic development and a hefty amount being spent and projected to be spent on Arctic infrastructure, a policy and/or organization needs to be put in place to: limit the negative impacts of building on the environment and communities; ensure that the building is done in a sustainable way that is flexible and can withstand the changing climate, and; facilitate the exchange of information for more resilient infrastructure. I propose that a non-domestic governmental association that focuses on Indigenous perspectives will help achieve those goals. The Arctic Council has recognized the pressure climate change has put on infrastructure, as seen in their Arctic Resilience Interim Report 2013.

Because of climate change, the Arctic infrastructure is in a difficult place. With the melting of permafrost and sea ice cover declining by 25%-30%, infrastructure needs to be flexible and adaptable to the fluctuating climate. Arctic States have built considerable infrastructure, such as the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway, the Dalton Highway in Alaska, and the E6 through Sweden and Norway. However, improvements with respect to Indigenous concerns can and should be front-and-center. Canada is paying a lot of attention to the Indigenous perspective, as seen in their Arctic Policy Framework, and other countries should follow suit.

Development can be beneficial for Indigenous populations when governments do it in an environmentally considerate and people respectful manner. More infrastructure could help build a more resilient economy, increase global participation and economic opportunities, provide better living conditions and help provide more sustainable energy. However, development introduces a myriad of other problems. Some of these include environmental degradation, lack of economic benefits, and a greater access to the community.

Pre-Existing Policy

Most of the current policy is domestic and marine-based. There is currently no international body with the specific goal of guiding Arctic infrastructure development. The Arctic Council has a Sustainable Development Work Group (SDWG) that does, in addition to its many other projects and activities, contribute to the discussion on international infrastructure development. However, only three of its current or planned projects pertain to infrastructure. These projects include the Arctic Renewable Energy Atlas project, the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy project, and the Improving Health through Safe and Affordable Access to Household Running Water and Sewer project. The SDWG’s other projects are very important and should be given the attention they deserve.  However, infrastructure is another issue that needs to be taken care of. Further diversification of the duties of the SDWG might help fill those gaps.

In Russia, a lot of the infrastructure is in poor condition, with few regulations in place to mitigate the environmental degradation that current infrastructure and the building of new infrastructure is causing. However, they are working to rectify that through policy and regulation changes. In the Arctic, specifically, they have already begun development, putting them ahead in terms of development compared to the other Arctic states.

The Canadian government has a robust vision for the North that includes healthy communities that can manage their affairs, an emphasis on respect for the environment, sustainable development in all actions and inter-agency governmental cooperation so as to result in a “vibrant, prosperous future for all, and protection of the land through enhanced presence on the land, sea, and skies.” Additionally, Canada has more than $180 billion (CAD) allotted for investment in sustainable Arctic energy and $2 billion for rural and northern communities.

In the United States’ Ten-Year Prioritization of Infrastructure Needs in the Arctic, the government highlights the opening of Arctic waterways that would allow for an increase in maritime activities. They state that the projected increase in activity increases the need for improved infrastructure, both physical and informational. In their plan, they prioritize the building of port reception facilities, communications, and weather, water, and climate predictions.

Policy Options

A New Arctic Council Working Group

One option to create a group that will help facilitate international cooperation regarding infrastructure would to be to create a new working group within the Arctic Council. Currently the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) covers matters relating to infrastructure. Given the amount of money being spent to develop the Arctic, we would be remiss if we did not help to prevent damage that could be caused by unchecked development.

A benefit of this option is that the Arctic Council already exists, and the proposed group would serve as a natural subdivision of the SDWG. The main focus of the group would be the synthesis of information collected by the other working groups, particularly from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, and the Sustainable Development Working Group.

One disadvantage of this approach is that the group can only make recommendations and has no way to enforce them. The Arctic Council would be getting bigger, as would the financial burden on the ad hoc funds of the Arctic Council, and there might be resistance to the formation of a new subdivision. Additionally, increasing the number of problems the Arctic Council has to consider forces the prioritization of issues, which can lead to less being accomplished.

A New Non-Governmental Group

Another option to facilitate international cooperation would to be to create a new non-governmental organization focused solely on infrastructure. It is not without precedent for a group like this to be formed. Examples would be the Arctic Alliance for People or The Arctic Institute. The main goal of the group would to advocate for Indigenous group participation in the Arctic states’ governments, research and assessment of projected impacts of infrastructure development and to make recommendations about how they can do it in a way that minimizes environmental, social, and health impacts, while maximizing benefits.

One benefit of this option is that there would be complete control over the agenda and they would not have to compete with other subdivisions or working groups for funding. However, where any funding would come from is uncertain.

Another disadvantage is that, as a non-governmental organization, it could be difficult to receive priority when communicating with domestic governments as well as with international organizations such as the Arctic Council. Additionally, there would be no support, as there would be from an already established and relatively respected organization, such as the Arctic Council. The issue of funding would also be a big one, having to rely upon crowd-sourced funding and membership dues.


I recommend a two-prong attack: a joint organization of the working group and Indigenous group solely to provide feedback and advice and to lobby domestic governments. The formation of a new Indigenous-driven group along with a subdivision of the SDWG would allow for greater communication between states and Indigenous peoples.

The purpose of the working group would be to research environmental, social and health impacts of state’s planned and projected infrastructure. Additionally, it would ensure that Indigenous groups are acknowledged and consulted before building takes place. If a new working group with the main focus being the development of infrastructure, they could address more effectively the issues outlined in the background. The formation of this new working group would mean that we could ensure that the Arctic is and remains “a zone of peace.” It means that we could promote Indigenous-State relationships that are mutually beneficial by facilitating communication. It would also promote greater inter-organizational cooperation as well as streamlining information flow from the body of work collected by the other working groups to the Arctic Council members, permanent participants, and observers.

The Indigenous group would focus on lobbying their respective domestic governments. The purpose of an international group would allow for Indigenous peoples to meet and share strategy and information. Additionally, if Indigenous peoples organize an international infrastructure plan that could be carried out domestically with cooperation between the states, it might have a better chance of being heard, acknowledged, and carried out.

Ultimately, despite any recommendation that I might make, it is up to the Indigenous and the Northern residents how and if they want to advocate for infrastructure improvements through a body like the one I have proposed or through some other means. My position as a “Southern” person is biased as a result of the simple fact that I do not live in the Arctic. Only they know what they need, and I hope that they will get what they need.




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