IQALUIT, NUNAVUT -- More than 30,000 litres of bottled water arrived in Nunavut’s capital city Thursday after the government declared a state of emergency due to an evolving water crisis.

The plane, filled with sorely needed potable water, is the first of at least five shipments expected in Iqaluit by the beginning of next week.

“The estimated total of all of it up to Monday evening should be around 170,000 litres of water,” James Mearns, director of Nunavut Emergency Management, told CTV National News.

On Tuesday, the city warned residents not to drink the tap water after a fuel-like smell was detected at the water treatment plant. Water samples from Iqaluit were sent to a lab in Southern Canada for testing and are expected back in the coming days, but officials say the water source is potentially tainted with petroleum.

The city said residents will be given a maximum of four reusable jugs per household and urged people to keep them for future use.

The safe drinking water currently available is being handed out in 16-litre rations per household – welcome news to those struggling without water.

“You just feel really restricted, and it does affect every way of life at home. This is amazing to me. I couldn’t have gone without this water,” Iqaluit resident Maye Malliki told CTV National News after receiving her ration.

“This is very, very serious. I didn’t realize until today when it’s really affecting me.”

Agnico Eagle, which operates several mines in the territory, has also promised 15,000 litres of water to Iqaluit on a cargo flight that is set to land Friday. Meanwhile, some residents have been collecting water at Iqaluit's Sylvia Grinnell River.

Experts say that while any amount of fuel in drinking water is unsafe, drinking it over the short term isn't necessarily dangerous.

Steven Siciliano, a microbiologist and toxicologist, told The Canadian Press that long-term exposure to compounds found in gasoline could be "very risky" but drinking it for a week or so probably isn't going to do much harm.

"It's not like if you have one cup of water, you're poisoned for the rest of your life," Siciliano said.

"If they drank it before they found there was fuel, I don't think they have grave cause for concern. Going forward, is it OK? Absolutely not."


As officials examine the water treatment plant looking for the cause of the crisis, many in the fast-growing arctic hub fear even larger water struggles are ahead as Geraldine Lake, the city’s main source of drinking water, isn’t sustainable.

“Ultimately, we need to expand our existing water reservoir because we don't have enough water right now to meet the needs of our community,” Iqaluit city councillor Kyle Sheppard told CTV National News.

Sheppard says the once permanently frozen Arctic ground is melting rapidly due to climate change, causing major infrastructure problems.

“The area at the water plant that's been identified as a potential cause of the problems we're facing now is built underground, initially in permafrost. That permafrost is melting and all of our pipe infrastructure is now in the active layer, so it's subject to heaving and moving in the ground that wasn't really designed for,” he explained.

“So, our pipes are breaking off from access faults and snapping and breaking all winter.”

And as temperatures drop in one of Canada’s most northern cities, the urgency grows.

In the meantime, officials say their first priority is to ensure that Iqaluit residents have access to safe water.

Three additional air-loads of bottled water are scheduled to arrive Friday.

​With files from the Canadian Press