Last week’s boil water advisory in Montreal, caused by a malfunction at a treatment facility, affected over 1.3 million people, and was the largest cautionary water measure to be enacted in recent memory in Canada. However, these warnings are a fact of life for many residential communities across the country, where contamination, damaged flood infrastructure and insufficient manpower have inconvenienced (and sickened) many Canadians. This week’s map takes a look at a sampling of water advisories currently in place across the country – some of which have made turning on the tap a problem for several years.
When confronted by the lists of current water advisories in each province and territory – assembled by a citizen watchdog group because no consolidated database exists – we were struck by the significant number of First Nations affected by water quality issues. Many of these communities are remote and at a significant distance from year-round roads, making the transport of sanitation equipment and bottled water very expensive and time-consuming. Kashechewan First Nation, located on the shores of the Albany River in northern Ontario, made headlines in 2005 when the community had to be evacuated due to a tainted water emergency. These conditions are rampant across many reserves in Canada – in the case of Lac Seul First Nation in northwestern Ontario, residents have been boiling their water before consumption for over a decade.
Things get worse than a boil water advisory – several Canadian communities are told not to consume their piped water under any circumstances. Again, a number of them are First Nations, but the highest concentration of “do not consume” orders that we could find lie in Québec, affecting nearly 50,000 people in total. People living on the Kitigan Zibi Anishnaabeg reserve must contend with unacceptable levels of uranium in their water supply. What if this problem affected one of the country’s biggest cities? How quickly would it be fixed. Aside from last week’s incident in Montreal, the closest thing we have seen to a long-term urban water problem was the advisory resulting from flooding in cottage country in southern Ontario, where many from Toronto escape for the weekend. Given the quality of life we’re accustomed to in most of Canada, the fact that some of these issues have persisted for years and years drives home the importance of water as a human right.
Correction: The city of Kawartha Lakes was previously shown to be under a boil water advisory that was affecting 73,214 residents. The advisory was actually issued by the Haliburton Kawartha Lakes Pine Ridge District Health Unit, and only to private water well owners who were affected by recent flooding. Approximately 200 residents were under the advisory.