OTTAWA – The federal government's pledge to eradicate all drinking water advisories in First Nations communities by March 2021 has just become a bigger task, as the number of water systems with long-term drinking water advisories has increased.
As of Tuesday, there are 91 systems that have long-term drinking water advisories, up from 67 at the end of 2017. The number of communities still turning to alternative water sources for drinking, bathing and cooking has increased because the department has recently responsibility for more systems, including 24 that already had long-term advisories.
These drinking water warnings have been in place for over a year.
In addition, there are 21 communities that have had had water issues for between two and 12 months, and are at risk of joining the long-term list.
The department now oversees 1,047 public drinking water systems, an increase of around 250 systems announced Tuesday.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott provided an update on the numbers Tuesday, as part of an announcement her department’s progress so far.
"We decided to expand the scope and make sure that anything that was reasonably considered a public system on reserve, that we should obviously be prepared to support," Philpott told reporters.
With Tuesday’s update, no new spending has been announced to help with the clearing up of the additional water systems, despite a recent Parliamentary Budget Officer report saying more funds will be required to meet the commitment.
To tackle the drinkable water issue, the Liberals initially earmarked $1.8 billion in the 2016 budget over five years to fix and maintain the on-reserve water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as training water system operators. Another $141.7 million over five years is going into Health Canada’s coffers to improve the monitoring and testing of drinking water on reserves.
In the 2017 budget there was $4 billion to be spent over a decade on community infrastructure. On Tuesday Philpott said some of this will be spent on water projects.
When asked about the potential of new spending, Philpott noted there is still previously-allocated money that has not been spent.
"Funding will not be an issue to achieve that target," Philpott said.
As CTV News.ca has previously reported, critics have raised concern with the pace and scope of work left to be done to fulfill the 2012 mandate commitment.
"There's a sense of, you make two steps forward, one step back," Conservative Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod previously told CTV News.ca.
The issues with water in First Nations communities are complex, and differ depending on where the communities are located and where they source water from. For some, the water treatment plants aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of the community. In others there’s a lack of training to keep the plants humming, and sometimes, when little fixes are needed the federal government is slow to step in.
There are three types of drinking water advisories:
- 'Boil water' advisories, which requires the water to be boiled before consuming or for cooking or cleaning;
- 'Do not consume' advisories, which means the water cannot be consumed or used for cooking or cleaning, but adult bathing is okay; and
- 'Do not use' advisories, where people cannot use the water for any reason.
In any case, the advisories force community members to find alternate water sources, adding an extra step to basic daily functions like bathing a child, or cooking dinner.
The water advisories are based on quality tests, and are issued by First Nations leadership on reserves, and municipal or provincial/territorial governments off-reserve.
Philpott said she hopes another 20 advisories will be lifted in the year ahead.