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#7 Top Story of 2018: ANTHC tackles climate impact challenges to water and sanitation construction

December 24, 2018




This story was one of ANTHC’s top news items in 2018. The original story was published in January 2018. As of 2017, 42 communities and more than 3,000 Native households in rural Alaska still lack sanitation infrastructure and access to safe drinking water. Even though steady progress has been made since 1970 in providing modern piped infrastructure to rural communities, these unserved communities and households are still reliant on the honey bucket. For 31 Alaska communities, new challenges to providing access to in-home water and sanitation systems are seen from climate change impacts. Many of the remaining unserved communities pose significant challenges to building and supporting sanitation systems in part because of their small size, lack of available fresh water, unique soil conditions and often their status as “environmentally threatened communities” at risk to the effects of climate change.

Environmentally threatened communities

A 2009 United States General Accounting Office report identified 31 Alaskan communities impacted significantly by climate change and 12 of these requiring some form of relocation. These 31 communities are considered to be environmentally threatened. Once identified as in need of relocation, federal agencies have minimized their “at risk” investments at these locations. Agencies are cautious about making substantial investments in places that have been identified as planning to relocate. As a result, places like Newtok and Kivalina — both in stages of community relocation — housing, electric power production, water and sewer, boardwalks and roads, solid waste facilities and other basic community infrastructure are slow to be replaced. To compound matters, climate impacts, such as severe storms, water surges, lack of sea ice and melting permafrost, destroys millions of dollars in infrastructure, adds stress to the already stressed, and is affecting how ANTHC plans to respond. Slowmoving disasters are not considered impactful enough for federal response and financing, so these communities are challenged with finding alternative solutions.  

ANTHC innovative solutions for communities

Helping communities that are most threatened by a changing Arctic is a priority for ANTHC Environmental Health and Engineering staff. We understand that our solution-based responsive planning and engineering will help community leaders assess their current situation, plan for future generations, maintain existing infrastructure and create a matrix for financing projects. One response to finding solutions starts with ANTHC’s innovative Design Engineering group. Engineering critical infrastructure to be more adaptable is seen in our development of modular washeteria designs, the in-home Portable Alternative Sanitation System (PASS), Flexible Pipe Connection design and proposed Active Refrigeration of Foundations using existing thermosiphons to prevent melting permafrost from destroying infrastructure. Many of these designs borrow values from our indigenous cultures that have sustained for thousands of years in the Arctic: mobility, adaptability, flexibility and efficiency. However, it is difficult to implement many of these solutions because of the lack of available funding for infrastructure innovations. Agencies that normally fund sanitation facilities are often reluctant to invest in new concepts and designs that are yet to be proven and therefore risky. Also, environmental changes are slow moving. Until the changing environmental conditions become severe enough to result in widespread destruction, the loss of infrastructure is not eligible for Federal disaster relief. Places like Shishmaref, Unalakleet, Kivalina, Shaktoolik, Newtok, Golovin and others will struggle to keep their community viable as the environment tests their infrastructure. ANTHC is working with Tribal leaders to voice our concerns. We are seeking solutions and attempting to draw the attention of others to the challenges facing northern communities. The continuous changing Arctic environment allows us to be proactive in how we plan to help communities sustain their subsistence lifestyles, plan relocations of their communities, redirect their focus on emergency response, improving human health with innovative design and cross-collaborating with other ANTHC programs. To assist the 31 environmentally threatened rural Alaska communities, the Denali Commission has contracted with the ANTHC Grants Department to create the Environmentally Threatened Communities Grant Center. For additional information or to access support, contact Melodie Fair at (907) 729-2418 or mfair@anthc.org or Max Neale at (907) 729-4521 or mdneale@anthc.org.

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