Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to flush

Weekly Cover | Big words about the climate and global politics will be exchanged in Alaska next week. Potty talk might be more helpful

Brian Pehora

When Barack Obama visits Alaska next week, his aim is to get a first-hand look at the effects rapidly rising temperatures are having on America’s Arctic frontier. The trip may well do wonders to help the cause of climate change among average Americans, and possibly even help his party hang on to the White House, but if it is help Alaskans themselves in a tangible way, his hosts ought to insist that he get a first-hand look inside their homes.

What Mr Obama would find, according to Alaska state statistics, is 3,300 homes, or 22% of rural dwellings, that lack in-home water. Not having water in the home is as inconvenient as it sounds, but it has significant health impacts. That is, firstly, because, clean water must either be brought in from central water points, or collected from creeks or barrels filled with rain or melt water.

Secondly, it means that instead of flush toilets, many Alaskans rely on “honey buckets” for their sanitation needs.

SEE VIDEO: The Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge (at end of article)

So named for their colour, honey buckets are five gallon (20 litre) plastic buckets capped with a toilet seat and lined with a plastic bag. (Fancier set-ups are enclosed in wooden frames.) When the bags fill (typically once a day for families), or the odour becomes unbearable, they are removed and eventually deposited in a sewage lagoon or other collection point.

Not all of rural Alaska is without rural water or sewage; the state has been building centralised water systems for the last 50 years, but such systems are expensive to install, operate and maintain, and funding is increasingly becoming scarce.

Much of the cost can be attributed to the long distances supplies must be shipped. The fact that many settlements can only be reached by air or water only complicates matters.

Other challenges include high levels of iron and a lack of gravel in local soil that makes it unsuitable for sewage lagoons.

Not having running water is more than just an unpleasant inconvenience. Among the health consequences are higher rates of skin infections and respiratory diseases, particularly among children, than is found in areas where there is indoor plumbing. Rural Alaska also has one of the world’s highest rates of invasive pneumococcal disease.

Solving the problem will take money, perhaps $660 million, reckon state officials. Creative thinking could help bring down that cost, however, and the state has launched a worldwide design contest to develop low-cost, decentralised in-home water systems.

In July it evaluated the proposals and funding will be provided to as many as three promising projects. Prototypes will be developed and installed in homes later this year and next.

Relief may not be far off.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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