New Funding for First Nation Water Systems

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GLOBE-Net, January 13, 2013 – The federal government has announced new investments in on reserve First Nation water and wastewater systems.

The government will invest $330.8 million over two years to build and renovate water and wastewater infrastructure on reserves and to support the development of a long-term strategy to improve water quality in First Nation communities.

Funding will be targeted to reduce risk levels and deliver results for water and wastewater systems on-reserve that improve access to safe clean water. These goals will be accomplished by increasing investments to support the training of operators and the operations and maintenance of facilities.

Operation and maintenance (O&M), operator training and certification, and record keeping and reporting alone account for nearly 60 per cent of the risk identified in Annual Performance Inspections of water and wastewater systems.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) will prioritize capital investments to target high and medium risk systems, in over 50 First Nation communities, including Canoe Lake, Saskatchewan; Tallcree First Nation, Alberta; and Nazko First Nation in British Columbia.

Year one of this funding will be allocated by AANDC in 2012-2013 in three areas of planned expenditures: $47.7 million for operations and maintenance, $32.1 million for training for First Nations and $47.3 million for capital investments.

Health Canada will support First Nations with an investment of $27.4 million each year to build capacity, enhance drinking water quality monitoring, maintain a national wastewater program, to increase public awareness and to review project proposals from a public health perspective.

The announcement comes shortly after a meeting of First Nations leaders with the Prime Minister that among other things dealt with improving health services and living conditions in First Nations communities.

The announcement confirmed that Chiefs and Councils will continue to be responsible for public health measures, such as issuing drinking water advisories in the affected communities, communicating the information to residents and addressing drinking water quality problems.

The federal announcement in part was an update to the release of the 2009-2011 National Assessment of Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nation Communities, the most rigorous, comprehensive and independent evaluation of water and wastewater systems on reserve ever undertaken by a federal government.

That report revealled that nationally 39 per cent of the water systems and 14 per cent of the wastewater systems were considered high-risk. A further 34 per cent of water systems and more than 51 per cent of waste-water systems are medium-risk.

The report estimated the cost to bring the systems up to standard at more than $1.2 billion  , including developing better management practices, improving training of system operators, increasing system capacity and building new infrastructure.

Arising from that report was a commitment that on-reserve water and wastewater issues would be addressed on a priority basis. Three key areas were identified for action: infrastructure investments; enhanced capacity building and operator training; and, enforceable standards and protocols.

A Backgrounder released as part of the federal announcement states that between 2006 and 2014, the government will have invested approximately $3 billion to support First Nation communities in managing their water and wastewater infrastructure and in related public-health activities.

Living conditions on many more remote First Nations reserves are far below acceptable Canadian standards and progress to remediate housing, water and wastewater infrastructure and health services has been painfully slow. Recent nation-wide ‘Idle No More’ protests and a high profile hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of the northern Ontario Attawapiskat First Nation have brought these problems into prominence both nationally and internationally.

One of the key aspects of the government’s commitment to improve water quality on reserves is the need to invest in capacity building, which was highlighted in the report as a major challenge to maintaining effective water and wastewater systems.

The government will invest $10 million a year to train and certify First Nation operators and managers on how to maintain and monitor technically complex water distribution and purification systems.

Such training is critical to ensure that on site operators and managers have the skills and knowledge to ensure safe, reliable and efficient systems operations.

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