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On Thin Ice: Iqaluit’s Water Crisis

In this episode we visit the city of Iqaluit in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut, which is battling a water crisis on multiple fronts. At the time of taping (mid-October), residents were alerted not to drink or cook with water due to contamination. But for years, the city’s main water supply – Lake Geraldine – has experienced dropping levels. And overall, climate change is impacting everything from the city’s water supply, to thawing permafrost.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster, on leave from her role as Deputy Mayor of Iqaluit, shares how the people of Iqaluit are coping with these water challenges and what they mean for the traditional Inuit way of life.

Guest Bios

Janet Pitsiulaaq BrewsterJanet Pitsiulaaq Brewster

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster is now the newly-elected MLA for Iqaluit-Sinna, one of 4 MLAs representing Iqaluit at the territorial level. At the time of our interview, Janet was on leave from her role as Deputy Mayor of Iqaluit.


WAW Guest Chris BurnChris Burn

Chris Burn is an internationally recognized expert in the domain of permafrost and ground ice in Yukon and the western Arctic. A professor of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University, he is equally adept at fostering meaningful and productive partnerships with relevant stakeholders in Canada’s North. Chris is committed to long-term field investigations of frozen ground. He has been particularly interested in determining the response of ground temperatures and the active layer to climate warming as observed in the western Arctic since 1970.

Further Reading

Water advisories | City of Iqaluit

Iqaluit city council extends state of local emergency over water crisis

Article detailing Iqaluit’s water woes and the impact of climate change and melting permafrost on Iqaluit. 

Arctic permafrost stores roughly twice the amount of carbon that’s currently in the Earth’s atmosphere, and is already fueling climate change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as global average temperatures increase, a trend that’s threatening the fragile Northern ecosystem.

Canadian scientists are warning that the accelerating loss of permafrost could shave five years off the schedule for reaching global net-zero emissions, if we have a hope of limiting the average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees. Faster warming would cause even more melting in the Arctic.

Houses in Nunavut are designed with the understanding that ground and permafrost under the home will remain solid – keeping the foundations from moving. With the onset of climate change, permafrost is beginning to thaw in more regions than before, and this is causing some building foundations to become less stable.


Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster on Twitter

City of Iqaluit on Twitter

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster on Instagram

Photo Credit

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster – Submitted
Chris Burn Carleton University

Full Transcript

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
When we live on the land and on the water we pass generational information down; where it’s safe to go and when it’s safe to go there. So the impact of climate change, of global warming and shifting permafrost is that that intergenerational knowledge is no longer correct. 

Jay Famiglietti: The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet. The rest of the world is starting to feel it. Through rising sea levels, severe weather events, the loss of wildlife. If there is anyone anywhere who sees this change firsthand, it’s the people living in the Arctic.

I’m Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. 

On this episode of What About Water? We visit Iqaluit, home to about 8,000 people, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. And from a dropping local water supply to thawing permafrost, a warming planet is altering the traditional Inuit way of life. One that goes back thousands of years.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster served as the Deputy Mayor of Iqaluit and she is helping her community tap into freshwater, adapt to the impacts of climate change and preserve their traditional life of which water is central. We sat down with her a few days after people in her city were told not to drink the water.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Hello, Jay, how are you? 

Jay Famiglietti: Well, it’s, it’s so great that you could make time for us, especially given this most recent water crisis in your city. What happened? 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Earlier this week the city of Iqaluit, declared a state of emergency due to the fact that they found a possible fuel source that is contaminating our water through just one part of our system. 

Thankfully, they don’t believe that it’s in our main water supply, which is Lake Geraldine. So we are currently in a state of emergency and have spent the last two days working to get freshwater to households, because we have been advised not to drink the water that’s coming out of our taps.

And we’ve also been advised that pregnant women and children should not bathe in the water. So we are in a crisis this week. 

Jay Famiglietti: That, that sounds really scary. Do you know what happened? I haven’t, from my reading of the news, I haven’t really been able to determine what actually happened. 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: So it’s not clear exactly what’s happened, but there are some theories out there.

There’s a concern that due to shifting permafrost that an underground tank may have cracked, and that is now causing some sort of fuel to leak in or leach into a holding tank. That is a tank that actually holds the chemicals that treat our water as it goes through our water and sewage treatment.

Jay Famiglietti: Um, so a couple of things: One, it sounds like a tremendous amount of work, but you know, what scares me a little more is that, you know, this is a sign of things to come all around the frozen north, right. As the permafrost, which is the, the ground that’s frozen, you know, year round as it starts to thaw out.

In addition to all the things we hear about methane release, there’s the, you know, the loss of stability of the ground, right? All the things that are built on the ground, the lifeline systems, like you’re talking about gas and gas tanks and gas pipes, you know, all of this stuff starts to shift around and it, man, if this starts happening across the north, we’re going to be in a tremendous amount of trouble.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Every single community has been impacted so far by, by global warming and climate change. And you know, the impact of, as you said, the permafrost layer becoming more active and thawing and freezing puts pressure on the underground infrastructure, and as that permafrost warms and becomes liquid, uh, what happens is when it begins to freeze again, the ice actually causes cracks and problems in that infrastructure.

It’s a huge concern for Iqaluit because our water and sewage system has two different methods of working here. So some families here, their homes have a huge holding tank for water, and then they have an additional holding tank for sewage. And so that water, uh, gets pumped in by a truck. And then the sewage gets pumped out by a different truck. 

And then for the rest of the city, we rely on underground sewage and water pipes. And so the big concern is that, each time a section breaks down, it puts more pressure on the sections that pick up that slack. Well, while that section is broken down.

And so the concern is that there could be a domino effect. If we’re not able to replace the majority of the infrastructure, we’re going to run into this problem over and over and over again. 

Jay Famiglietti: It’s not always very popular for politicians to say, we need to spend millions and millions of your tax dollars on a new water system.

How do people in your city see this? 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Because it’s so much work and so expensive. Iqaluit residents are paying 2 cents, 2 cents a liter for water. We’re asking families to pay 10 times more in Iqaluit, than families in Winnipeg are paying for water. 

When you consider the economic impact in relation to the high levels of poverty that, especially, that the Inuit population faces here in Iqaluit, it then becomes a question of do we pay for water or do we pay for food? 

Jay Famiglietti: That disparity is, is really unbelievable. 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Mhmm.

Water Drops Interlude

Jay Famiglietti: A few years ago, people in Iqaluit started noticing a big problem: dangerously low levels in their main water supply. Their fresh water comes from Lake Geraldine between climate change, a growing population and a growing demand for water. There’s now such a strain on Lake Geraldine researchers say that by 2024, the city’s main water source will be irreversibly depleted.

Water Drops Interlude

Jay Famiglietti: Can you take us back – what do you remember the most about a time a few years back when problems started surfacing with Lake Geraldine? 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: So the problems, have been ongoing for nearly, well, I’d say over 10 years. We know that in 2018, because of extremely dry weather over the summer and in 2019 as well, the Lake Geraldine reservoir wasn’t able to fill up as much as it normally does. And so there’s a real concern to that because what happens is when, when freeze up comes over, the majority of Lake Geraldine freezes up completely.

And so over the winter months, we rely on the water that’s trapped underneath the ice. Come winter time, that is cut down to half or a third because of ice cover. So we’re really concerned about that. And so the city of Iqaluit has been doing public health messaging around water conservation. 

We have this ongoing car wash ban. We have some of the dirtiest vehicles in the country because it does get really dusty and in the summer, and, and during thaws, it’s slushy and, you know, we sand our roads. We don’t, we don’t use salt on our roads when the thaw happens. You know, that just, that just creates even more dust, so… 

Jay Famiglietti: You know, I think that dirty cars are really, a badge of honor when it comes to conserving water. So, so good on you. And that’s just really amazing to me that the water supply literally gets cut in half when the lake freezes.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: You know, for years now, residents have grown used to this message of “conserve water.”

And the reality is though, if you have 10 people living in your household, you can’t conserve water. There’s no way that you, we can ask people to conserve water. Because people need water to live. 

Jay Famiglietti: People do need water to live. No doubt. And that’s not the only place where we see major changes in the Arctic.

Janet, we know warmer temperatures are starting to melt layers of ground beneath your feet, the Arctic permafrost. What’s an example of where you see that change?

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: So one of the things is that there’s an Inuit delicacy called igunaq, which is fermented meat. Fermented walrus meat specifically. And the way that Inuit prepare that is when a walrus is harvested, the walrus is skinned and deboned and the meat and fat of the walrus and the stomach contents are rolled into that walrus skin and then sewn back together and then buried at in the beach, usually close to water. So the impact of climate change of global warming and shifting permafrost is that the places where we have traditional knowledge about preparing Igunaq about burying this meat is no longer a hundred percent safe.

So we have this traditional knowledge about how to prepare this Igunaq. We cannot no longer rely on that traditional knowledge about where and when to bury it at what time of year and for how long. Because what’s happening is the ground, the temperatures in the ground, are not acting the same way that they have for the thousands of years that Inuit have been preparing this traditional food.

So it’s buried for, you know, months, and then people go back and they dig it out, open it up and, oh, the smell. If you like ripe cheese, it melts in your mouth. But, if you can get past the smell, then the taste is sublime. Uh, but so what’s happening is that the temperatures are not. What they used to be.

So because the temperatures are different by a few degrees, what’s happening is bacteria and different parasites are able to thrive when years ago they wouldn’t thrive. And so sometimes that Igunaq is not safe to eat. And there’s a potential for people to die. So there’s not only the human health impact, there’s an impact on the human psyche. 

Jay Famiglietti: From a climate perspective. I just tend to think about the climate and biogeochemistry. And, you know, you have described an amazing cultural impact. We’ve already talked a little bit about impact on the infrastructure. What about impact on livelihoods? I’m curious about how the thawing permafrost might be affecting livelihoods in your city.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:  So we have a very traditional way of giving what we call, you know, Inuksiutit – other people might – we’ll call it country food. So country food; food from the land. So when we….I put nets out every year to catch Arctic char. And so what happens when I pull my nets in… I clean the fish, I prepare them and then I load up a bin and I go around and deliver fish to elders or to families that are food insecure and obviously to family. Right? 

So first and the first stop is always my mom, my elder mom. So when I am unable to harvest as many fish that I normally do, then the impact on everybody’s food security has an equal impact on our economy because we are now having to either recuperate, the funds that we spent, and then we’re having to buy food store-bought food, which we know is not as healthy.

So the impact on people’s health when they’re not eating traditional foods is that you can maybe become less healthy. And people who aren’t as healthy as they can be aren’t able to participate in the wage economy to the same extent as people who are healthy.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, you know what I’m getting from you, Janet, is that the emotional strain on your population must be enormous. 

And I’m wondering about the mental health challenges that are going along with these water issues and these climate change issues. Are you seeing an uptick in mental health related issues? 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Over the last few decades, yes, there have been. I mean, and again, this is not just about climate change.

It’s about historical trauma and about the intergenerational impact of residential schools and how that has impacted the way that families move through the world and through life.

And so to have the additional impact of food insecurity and lack of access to very, very important cultural learnings, because we know if it’s not safe to go out on the land and to teach youth on the land skills and language skills, really important language skills. When we’re on the land with, with our children, where we’re using more traditional Inuktitut and giving our children and our youth the opportunity to grow emotionally and to connect with family, to reconnect. 

You know, the impact of residential schools is still playing out today in trauma and one of the biggest impacts – and I’ll tell you this –  my mother and her siblings, all but one went to residential school. And there was a period of time where my mother, two of my aunts and two of my uncles were away at the same residential school and they were children.

They were, you know, between the ages of five and 16, I think at the time. And the residential school separated the siblings by gender. So my mother and her sisters weren’t allowed to interact directly with their brothers. And there was a period of time as well, where two of my uncles were away at residential school and they got weathered in and couldn’t make it home one summer.

So they were gone for two years and when they got home, neither one of them could speak Inuktitut. And my grandmother Nipisha was a unilingual Inuktitut speaker. So my grandfather wrote to the administrators of the residential school and, and let them know that his boys had come back and they had lost their Inuktitut.

And so therefore couldn’t have conversations with their mother and the administrator responded by saying, “You know, Mrs. Lyle is a really smart woman. She should go to the adult educator and learn how to speak English as an example to the other Inuit in the community.”

And so the impact of separating families has caused every generation since to struggle to maintain and make new connections. And so when we take our children out on the land. When we go out with our elders, when we go out with our parents, essentially what we’re doing is we’re practicing our traditional culture and our traditional values. And most importantly, we’re reconnecting as families. 

And the impact that climate change is having on that act of reconciliation, of being out on the land is putting up more barriers to creating healthier families. Rebuilding healthier families. 

That is something that every Canadian, everybody around the world should be concerned about. And that’s why it’s so important to, for example, invest in the water and sewage infrastructure in Iqaluit, so that families are at an equitable level of access to clean water so that we can spend our time concentrating on rebuilding our connections and on building healthy communities.

Jay Famiglietti: Well, thank you for sharing that story and those thoughts, you know, in a sense, it sounds like climate change is really acting as a threat multiplier to these layers of issues and problems that your families have had to deal with. 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Mhmm. 

Jay Famiglietti: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about, you know, the role that water plays. So for the Inuit, water also represents transportation, doesn’t it? Like a highway? 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s our highway to our hundred-mile diet. And that’s true at nearly every time of the year. When we live on the land and on the water, we pass generational information down about where it’s safe to go and when it’s safe to go there.

And the impact of climate change and global warming is that that intergenerational knowledge is no longer correct, in some cases. I have a neighbor who is a young man, now he’s in his mid thirties. He’s been living here in Iqaluit since he was born.

And he has spent every possible moment that he had to spare out on the land. And he went out a couple of years ago in the spring time. And was a hauling, uh, what’s called a qamutik, which is a wooden sled that Inuit use to carry our gear, food and people as well. He had a passenger on that qamutik and he was going down the bay to an area where he had gone for decades at the same time of  year. And what happened was before he realized it, he came upon a place that was thawing faster than normal. So it wasn’t until he was in the midst of this slush that he realized that the ice was not frozen, where it should have been frozen. His snowmobile went through the ice. And he and his passenger were plunged into the Arctic Ocean, in the middle of nowhere.

And it just so happened that he had a spot device or some kind of a tracker. And his father was at home and was watching where they were going. You know, he was keeping his eye out on his son through modern technology. So thankfully dad mobilized search and rescue. And in the meantime, my friend and his companion had to claw their way out of the Arctic Ocean and managed to get back up on the ice.

They were both hospitalized and traumatized. And what we know is that he did nothing wrong. They did nothing wrong. They knew where they were going. They trusted where they were going. They trusted each other in their traditional knowledge about the way that the ice acts at that time of year. And because of global warming, they came upon this thawed spot.

So that highway is really important. The waterways are extremely important, whether they’re frozen or they’re thawed. When they’re changing, we have to adapt along with that change. So now, often, you see that people are using social media in order to update people about snow and ice conditions in traditional hunting areas.

We use CB radios as well, telling each other about conditions out in the water and on the water and warning each other of concerning areas. And, you know, the bottom line is that people are at risk of dying. And what we know is that we are really essentially the canaries in the coal mine.

So what happens to us as Inuit will eventually happen to people south of our borders or our lifestyle. And it will be a different impact, but the real impact is on human lives. 

Jay Famiglietti: Janet. Thanks so much for joining us today and for some very thoughtful and eye-opening conversation. 

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster: Thank you, Jay. I’m really happy I was here.

Jay Famiglietti: Janet Brewster served as the deputy mayor of Iqaluit. She joined us from her home there.

Janet Brewster lives in the Eastern Arctic. As she mentioned, climate change is not just spreading her city’s water supply at risk. It’s also thinning layers of sea ice, and it’s changing the terrain of the Arctic itself. It’s changing the permafrost. 

Chris Burn supervises graduate programs and Northern studies at Carleton University. For years, he’s studied the way climate change has changed the Arctic’s permafrost terrain.

Last Word

Chris Burn: When we say that permafrost is thawing, what we mean is that the very near surface of the ground (which has in the past always remained below zero throughout the year) is now beginning for a short time each year to have its temperature rise above zero.

The rate of change in Western Arctic Canada is amongst the greatest in the world. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that the climate change there is the most rapid in North America and close to the most rapid in the world. There are relatively few places where we understand how rapidly the permafrost itself is degrading.

We can’t say that the same thing is happening everywhere, but all of those places give us one general message. And that is that the temperature of the ground is rising. 

Jay Famiglietti: Chris Burn is an internationally recognized expert in permafrost and ground ice. He’s a Professor of Geography and Environmental studies at Carleton University.

Arctic researchers and climatologists estimate that if nothing changes, the planet will lose 2.5 million square miles of permafrost by the end of this century. That’s 40% of all the world’s existing permafrost. The consequences of that will be more carbon and methane released into the atmosphere drastically boosting greenhouse gas levels and rates of warming.

Well, that’s it for this episode of What about Water.

We recorded and produced this podcast on Treaty Six Territory. We live and work on this, the Homeland of First Nations and Métis People. And we respect that relationship. 

What About Water is produced by the Walrus lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Check out What About As we continue to post water related stories, content and resources

Our crew here at What About Water is Mark Ferguson, Erin Stephens, Laura McFarlan, Fred Reibin, Jesse Witow, Sean Ahmed, and Andrea Rowe. Thanks to Wayne Giesbrecht, our studio technician, and to Farha Akhtar and to Jen Quesnel at Cascade Communications who put it all together. I’m Jay Famiglietti, thanks for listening.

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