Getting all of the water and sanitation systems in Canadian First Nation communities up to standard could cost about $4.7 billion but it’s important to remember there are also costs to inaction. University of Winnipeg Prof. Melanie O’Gorman is collaborating on a project about the cost of doing nothing to fix water services in First Nation communities. The economist is collecting data to demonstrate to policy makers the correlation between costly health issues in First Nation communities and having no/limited access of clean drinking water and sanitation.

Among the 2008 First Nations Regional Health Survey sample, approximately 80 per cent of people said they were in good health, 7-10 per cent said they experienced stomach problems, and 51 per cent said they felt distressed much of the time. Prof. O’Gorman’s analysis asks to what extent these health indicators are correlated with water access. For example, after controlling for other health determinants, the research team found that people whose household water was piped in were 10 per cent more likely to say they were in good health compared to those who had water trucked to their homes, while people using well water were 14 per cent less likely to say they were in good health compared to people with trucked water. People with piped water were 20 per cent less likely to report stomach problems compared to people with trucked water. People with well water were 20 per cent more likely to report stomach problems compared to people with trucked water. Therefore the overall consensus in First Nation communities is that piped water is considered superior for a number of health conditions. Millions of dollars are spent on health care due to these water and sanitation issues. If they were resolved, community health would improve, and health-care costs would decrease.

Many people are distressed when they only have access to water that is trucked into cisterns as they often have to ration water, the cost can be high for large families with low incomes, roads are unreliable, cisterns are hard to clean, and animals have been reported getting into the cisterns.

For communities with proper sanitation (both toilets and septic systems), people were 40 per cent more likely to say they were in good health compared to those who did not have proper sanitation (controlling for other health determinants). People with proper sanitation were also 14 per cent less likely to report being distressed if they had a piped system relative to trucked-in water.

A survey was conducted at St. Theresa Point in 2016, with 145 people interviewed. Half of the homes had trucked water, 88 per cent had a flush toilet, 13 per cent had no running water, and 40 per cent had to haul water from the lake or a communal tap. People spent one or two hours a day on average hauling water, time that could have been spent with their families or at work. More than 65 per cent of people were concerned about the cleanliness of the water, so boiled it or purchased bottled water. About 33 per cent of people were concerned about the level of chlorine in their drinking water, and wished they could still drink out of the lake.

“Before we had running water, we had clean water,” a St. Theresa Point Elder said.

Diarrhea and skin rashes were the major health issue and insufficient drinking water monitoring caused distress. It can be costly to clean drinking water storage cisterns and it’s unsafe for people without proper training to crawl into the tanks to do it.

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What do you think are the benefits for improved water infrastructure in a community?

Children would be able to go to school more consistently if they weren’t sick or spending time hauling water, and there is a positive correlation between going to school and graduating. In St. Theresa Point First Nation, the school is at the end of the water pipeline, so it often has low water pressure. On days when there is no water pressure, the school is closed. No science experiments are performed, as the eye wash stations are inoperable. The sprinkler system within the school does not work, and if there was a fire, the school would likely burn down.

There would be a decrease in health issues such as diarrhea and skin rashes due to contaminated or insufficient water. This would reduce health-care costs. There would also be an increase in productivity as more people could go to work instead of being sick, taking care of a sick family member or hauling water. There are also environmental benefits, not having waste dumped onto the land, and eventually making its way into the water.

Audio podcasts are also available of seminars in this series.