Tuluksak River via Chris Pike on Flickr.
Tuluksak River via Chris Pike on Flickr.

Indigenous Alaskan Communities and the Fight for Clean Water

In Alaska, where 18 percent of the population is Indigenous, some native communities still do not have sustainable water infrastructure, highlighting the ongoing inequality.

In January of 2021 an unknown source sparked a fire at the Indigenous village of Tuluksak’s sole water power plant. The plant, which provided this native Alaskan community of nearly 400 with safe drinking water, quickly burned to ashes, leaving the rural community vulnerable. 

In the aftermath of the fire, community members struggled to access clean water or secure the delivery of bottled water from local and state authorities. And when they did manage to secure the latter, weather challenges and delays made the transportation process difficult. 

Many natives were left without water entirely for months on end, relying instead on hauled water from neighboring freshwater reserves, if they had the means to secure it via snowmobile or some other method.

It wasn’t until March of 2021, nearly two months after the plant burned down, that residents were finally able to see some sort of resolution to their water woes.

In March of 2021, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) installed a reverse osmosis water filtration system, providing residents with a steady stream of drinking water should they need it and have the opportunity to fill up.

Elsie Allain, Tuluksak’s tribal administrator, says the reverse osmosis system was transformative for the community, providing them, finally, with at least some form of potable water. 

“It eliminated drinking [potentially] contaminated water,” said the administrator. Although she says the water, itself, although clean, is still not an ideal form of accessing clean drinking water for the community and is not up to the standards of community members like herself.

“If I had no choice, I would rather dehydrate than drink that water,” she said.

And, the system is only available to residents for a few hours during the day, revealing again how the system provides a very temporary solution to a very large problem. 

Community members still primarily find themselves borrowing water from the YKHC water treatment plant, which although more appealing, is old, often experiencing leaking or frozen pipes that makes accessing water a still extremely difficult, and unreliable, process.

Non-working pipes and a poor drainage system means community members can’t use available and necessary facilities, like the laundry room.

Many community members still do not have access to running water within their homes or at Tuluksak schools, posing nothing less than a major human rights issue in this small village.

“We have no place for community members to shower, aside from having a steam bath house [and] not everyone has that option,” said Allain.

Indigenous communities already face the brunt of our country’s oppression and inequality. Lack of access to water in Tuluksak is just one example of the many Inidgenous communities whose local governments have failed them in meeting their most basic needs.

The disproportionate rate of suicide in these areas — which is the highest in the country — highlights the ways that these communities have been forgotten and neglected.

In another Alaskan village, Brevig Mission, which also lacks sustainable water infrastructure that provides long-term drinking water, a common reason for clinic visits is suicide attempts said CeeJay Johnson Yellow Hawk.

Johnson Yellow Hawk describes herself as an artist auntie, she is Dakota Lakota from the Ft. Peck Tribe in Montana as well as Lingít, from Southeast Alaska. 

And mental health issues are just one symptom of the impacts of the state-sanctioned violence that these Alaskan Indigenous communities have been experiencing for centuries.

Not having access to clean drinking water or a robust sewage system also weakens these communities’ physical health.

Nearly 100 years ago, Brevig Mission was almost entirely wiped out by the Spanish Influenza virus. And, due to climate change, the permafrost that protected Indigenous folks from feeling the continued effects of virus and disease, because it was frozen underground, is melting.

As our climate continues to change, with resources like clean water and air becoming even more finite, these communities will continue to face the brunt of the impacts if their most basic needs are not met.

Robust and sustainable water and sewage infrastructure in these remote communities are a great first step.

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