By Liam Sherlock, Senior News Editor
As fantastic and impossible monsters and terrors frighten us, catheterizing our fears this Halloween, we are reminded of a different kind of fear. On October 12, 2021, the Mayor of Iqaluit issued an advisory to the populace to avoid drinking tap water. This was issued due to fuel-element contamination in the water supply, which could not be purified away from this water by simply boiling it. While this particular incident highlights issues of northern inequality, climate and human impacts of fossil fuel pollution, and indigenous issues, it also demonstrates something far scarier — the thin blue line that always separates humanity between life — and death: Water.
We all learned in school that over two-thirds of the world is covered by water. This represents roughly 326,000,000 cubic miles of water, of which nearly ninety-seven percent is saltwater in the oceans. Of the remaining freshwater, over half is trapped in (rapidly melting) glaciers, permafrost, and deep underground; only the remaining one percent of the earth’s water supply is drinkable water. This simple molecule — H2O — is however a necessary molecule for much of life as we know it.
This freshwater is not all safe for human consumption — a fact that we, in the prosperous West, are liable to overlook. However, safe drinking water is a luxury, as we are increasingly reminded by incidents such as Iqaluit and Flint. From 2014 to 2019, the city of Flint, Michigan faced contamination of the water supply with lead particulates and the Legionella bacterium. This left countless residents exposed, including thousands of children potentially affected by lead exposure from tap water. Recently, a nearby Michigan City, Benton Harbor, has come to light as having high levels of lead contaminants in its water supply, leading to officials reluctantly declaring it unsafe to drink, and promising to replace the city’s lead-pipe infrastructure after a petition to the EPA was established.
Meanwhile, in Nunavut’s capital, the mayor was forced to issue a warning about the unhealthy water in the supply, also helping to highlight concerns about the human impact of environmental contamination from industrial activity. This led to a shutdown in surgeries as clinical instruments could no longer be cleaned normally, and thus illustrates the second-degree, but no less essential uses of water such as cleaning and irrigation. While efforts to try to flush the system appear to be successful, this close-to-home chilling reminder remains: safe water is not to be taken for granted, and is never something to make light of. Even the most developed countries are not safe, nor immune to the need for water.
Indeed, even today, just more than half of the world’s population has access to safe drinking water. In Canada also access to clean drinking water remains a contentious equity issue; despite PM Justin Trudeau’s promises, there remain 33 drinking advisories on First Nations reservations (down from 126 such advisories in 2015). These only underscore how not everyone has clean water, a fundamental element of life — even in this supposedly enlightened age. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly half the population of about 800 million is without clean water. Even a seemingly successful country such as India suffers questionable access to safe water, with half the population facing unreliable or dangerous water supplies due to contamination by chemical toxins such as fluoride and arsenic, and as a result of depletion from over-exploitation.
Water is not a luxury; it is absolutely essential to human life. Without water, the human body starts to shut down; it becomes unable to filter toxins, regulate temperature, and circulate blood. After just three days without proper hydration, the body’s systems start to stop. Eventually, the brain slows too, resulting in hallucinations, and when it stops, death.
Small wonder then that humans will drink contaminated water to avoid such a fate. However, this horror is not the stuff of deserts and Bear Grylls serials. Instead, it is a rapidly approaching doom as overpopulation threatens the world’s resources, with the UN-Water predicting that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. Barring the development of more affordable seawater-purification techniques, this can only get worse as climate change threatens existing supplies, rainfall, and glacial reserves, and rampant population growth continues unchecked. This horror is not some far-off alien life-form or dystopian future to be catheterized away with cheap entertainment, but our own generation’s nightmare — a nightmare that won’t go away like a monster under the bed.