In Iqaluit, Nunavut’s only hospital feels the ripple effects of the ongoing water crisis

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The nearly 8,000 residents of Iqaluit, Nunavut, haven’t been allowed to drink from their taps since Oct. 12.Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

It was one week into Iqaluit’s water crisis when Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster’s mother needed an emergency diagnostic procedure that normally would have been available at the Arctic city’s Qikiqtani General Hospital.

But rather than undergoing the procedure in her hometown, Ms. Pitsiulaaq Brewster’s mother was sent on a medical evacuation flight to Ottawa. She was one of dozens of patients – including 21 children scheduled for dental surgery – affected by a decision to close the operating rooms at Nunavut’s only hospital until officials could be sure it was safe to sterilize surgical tools with municipal water.

Ms. Pitsiulaaq Brewster said travelling south for medical care can be difficult for patients like her mother, who at 16 was sent to a now-shuttered sanitorium in Edmonton when she had tuberculosis.

Although surgeries resumed at Qikiqtani General on Monday, the interruption underscored the far-reaching effects of Iqaluit’s continuing water crisis.

The nearly 8,000 residents of Nunavut’s capital haven’t been allowed to drink from their taps since Oct. 12, the day the city declared an emergency because the water reeked of gasoline. Tests later confirmed “exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components” in a sample from one of the concrete tanks at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant.

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This week, investigators announced they had found a possible culprit: an old fuel spill in an “inaccessible below-ground void” near the plant. The contaminated water tank has been bypassed and a company was hired to clean up the spill, but Iqaluit residents are still being warned not to drink tap water, even if boiled.

That means residents are continuing to fill jugs with water from a nearby river and line up for bottled water, as they have for more than two weeks. However, they’ve also been asked to flush their pipes this weekend, a sign Iqaluit’s water may soon be deemed safe to drink.

When the crisis began, officials at Qikiqtani General determined there was no need to close the hospital, said Francois de Wet, chief of staff at the hospital and the territorial chief of staff for Nunavut’s Health Department. The facility had more than enough bottled water, thanks in part to the fact the sealift had just come in, Dr. de Wet added.

Like all of Nunavut’s 25 communities, Iqaluit is accessible only by plane or boat. Businesses and individuals often order non-perishable goods in bulk to be delivered on barges before the sea ice comes in every winter.

A view of the dam at Lake Geraldine, the reservoir for the Iqaluit’s drinking water, on Oct. 6, 2021.Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer, told a news conference on Oct. 15 that there were concerns about running contaminated water through the autoclave, a machine that uses high heat and steam to sterilize surgical tools. He also worried about how doctors and nurses would scrub in before surgery.

Dr. Patterson recommended that Qikiqtani General’s operating rooms be closed for all but emergency surgeries that were too time-sensitive for a flight to Ottawa, the city where most of the eastern Arctic’s high-level medical care is delivered.

Chelsey Sheffield, a general practitioner and anesthetist at Qikiqtani General, said a total of seven operating days had to be cancelled across both rooms because of the water crisis. One room had been slated for general surgeries – mainly endoscopies – for six days. A visiting urologist’s day of procedures also had to be rescheduled.

The second operating room had been reserved for dental surgery for children, some of whom had already flown to Iqaluit from Nunavut’s other isolated communities to await their procedures. Twenty-one of those procedures were postponed.

“The ones that hurt the most were the dental cases,” Dr. de Wet said.

When the crisis began, officials at Qikiqtani General determined there was no need to close the hospital.Pat Kane/PAT KANE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Fortunately, he added, another slate of pediatric dental surgeries went ahead this week, part of Nunavut’s efforts to chip away at a backlog of dental cases that doubled during the worst of the pandemic.

All surgeries resumed after further testing of the hospital’s water found it safe for uses other than drinking. “The amount of hydrocarbons are below the detectable level and so it is deemed safe for handwashing, including autoclaving,” the Nunavut health department said in a statement.

The other category of patients affected by the closing were those such as Ms. Pitsiulaaq Brewster’s mother, who was flown to Ottawa on Oct. 19. Fewer than five patients required medical evacuation during the shutdown, according to Dr. Sheffield.

“The cost of a medevac when a patient goes out on their own, without an escort, is about $40,000,” Ms. Pitsiulaaq Brewster said. She would know: Until recently, Ms. Pitsiulaaq-Brewster was the director of travel programs for Nunavut’s Department of Health and Iqaluit’s deputy mayor.

She is now a member of Nunavut’s legislative assembly after winning a seat in Monday’s territorial election.

Andrea Salluviniq receives bottles of water from City of Iqaluit staff and volunteers on Oct. 15, 2021.Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

Erupting as it did in the midst of an election campaign, Iqaluit’s water crisis underlined the infrastructure deficiencies that plague Canada’s youngest territory, a place where about 85 per cent of the population is Inuit.

In a report released last fall, national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) described the crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure in Canada’s four Inuit regions, including Nunavut. The report found that between January, 2015, and Oct. 1, 2020, Inuit communities spent a combined total of 9,367 days under boil-water advisories.

The situation was worst in northern Quebec and northern Labrador, the report concluded, but the extent of the problem in Nunavut wasn’t clear because the territory “does not appear to have a sufficient system for tracking [boil-water advisories] across the territory over time.”

In Iqaluit, pipes first laid in the 1970s are deteriorating. The city declared states of emergency in 2018 and 2019 after its reservoir at Lake Geraldine hit historic lows.

Paying for constant repairs is contributing to a spike in residents’ water bills, Ms. Pitsiulaaq-Brewster said in an interview from Ottawa this week, where she was preparing to help her mother travel home to Iqaluit.

“People are having to make the choice of, ‘Do I pay my water bills? Do I pay my grocery bills? Do I pay my power bill?’”

Iqaluit City Council voted this week to cancel water bills for the month of October, a decision that is expected to cost nearly $1-million.

With operating rooms humming again at Qikiqtani General, the main concern now is ensuring that staff working 12-hour shifts are able to get out to collect water for their families, Dr. de Wet said.

Hospital staff and other Iqaluit residents have been delivering water to those in need, sharing tips about short water lines on social media and finding other ways to support each other.

“In Iqaluit and Nunavut in general, the people are very resilient,” Dr. de Wet said. “Part of the Inuit societal values is solving problems and co-operating with each other.”

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