Living on 10 litres a day

Early this year I watched a four-part special investigation conducted by the Winnipeg Free Press titled “No Running Water.” The footage, available on their website, documents the lack of clean drinking water that many First Nation communities in northern Manitoba face. For those of us living in a city such as Winnipeg, where access to clean drinking is often taken for granted, this four-part series is a must-see.

As I watched the footage for the first time, I was shocked to learn that more than 3,000 homes on First Nations reserves across Canada lack running water — two out of five are in Manitoba.

Not fortunate enough to be able walk over to their kitchen sink and turn on the tap, those without running water must trek to a community tap and haul the buckets of water back to their homes.

Inside a seven-person household in St. Theresa Point, Man., the footage showed a home with no kitchen sink, no bathtub — the family had no running water. Instead, a woman who lived in the home was forced to wash her baby in a small plastic tub on the kitchen table.

She said: “It’s hard to wash, especially my baby. I can’t even wash him because we don’t have a bathtub to wash the kids.”

I looked up from my place on the couch to my kitchen sink — where clean, drinkable water was flowing from the tap over a sinkful of dirty dishes.
At that particular moment I realized just how fortunate I am to have something as simple as running water, something I have never second-guessed. My whole life I have been lucky enough to walk over to the kitchen sink or the shower, turn on the tap and have clean water flow freely.

That same family in St. Theresa Point, Man., however, survives on “10 litres of treated water per person a day, plus another 20 litres of untreated water from the lake for laundry.” Meanwhile, the United Nations suggests that every person needs 20-50 litres of clean water a day to fulfill basic human needs of drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Every human being should have access to clean drinking water. In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right.

It is hard to imagine that here in Canada — in the year 2011 nonetheless — people are still without access to clean drinking water and sanitation.

Despite the federal government having spent over $2 billion on First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure between 2006-2012, 116 First Nations communities across Canada were under a drinking water advisory as of Feb. 28, 2011. Some of these advisories have been in place for a number of years.
Leaving families without enough clean water to wash their hands and bodies, the inadequate and or even non-existent water treatment systems of First Nations communities are partially to blame for the increased incidence of waterborne disease — up to seven times higher — in these communities than in the general population.

Being without running water also means that the families of these communities — such as those interviewed in “No Running Water” — have to rely on indoor latrines or “honey pots”— often nothing more than a bucket or plastic bag — to collect human waste. These buckets must be emptied daily, an unpleasant job to say the least.

Families who resort to drinking lake water because it is more accessible than the community water tap are at risk of picking up germs that entered the lake from the run-off of outhouses and emptied latrine buckets.

This situation is shameful. Many Canadians take for granted their ability to fill a glass from the kitchen tap or run a warm bath. Most could probably not imagine having to relieve themselves in a plastic bag or bucket — inside their home — every day.

The most recent federal budget allocated zero funding to improve First Nations water infrastructure. The 2010 budget, however, allocated $330 million for a two-year extension of the First Nations water and wastewater action plan. There are five key areas under this plan: infrastructure investments; operations and maintenance; training; monitoring and awareness; and standards. The 2010 budget leaves Canada’s First Nations $165 million to fund all of these five areas this year.

With the federal election fast approaching, the lack of running water plaguing First Nations communities is an important issue worthy of discussion. We should be asking party leaders how they plan to provide First Nations communities with vital water infrastructure accompanied by long-term maintenance plans, ensuring access to clean running water years down the road.

No Canadian should have to go without access to clean running water.

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