Fact Sheet - The Results of the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems

The results of the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, the most rigorous, comprehensive and independent assessment of its kind ever conducted by a federal government, have been provided to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada by Neegan Burnside Ltd, the independent contractor responsible for conducting the assessment, and have now been made publicly available by the department. This fact sheet provides a synopsis of the key results of this unprecedented assessment, both nationally as well as in eight specific regions of the country.

How do First Nations access water and dispose of wastewater?

First Nation communities receive their water through a variety of methods, with national figures showing 72 per cent of all homes being piped, 13.5 per cent on truck delivery, 13 per cent serviced by individual wells and 1.5 per cent having no water service. A similar national breakdown can be found for wastewater systems with 54 per cent of homes being piped, 8 per cent having their sewage hauled by truck, 36 per cent having septic and other individual wastewater systems and 2 per cent of the homes having no service.

Summary of National Results

The National Assessment surveyed the water and wastewater systems of 97 per cent of First Nation communities in Canada. Site visits in the 571 participating First Nations began in September 2009 and concluded in November 2010.

Risk

Using the Department's Risk Level Evaluation Guidelines, the contractor assigned a risk rating to each of the 807 water systems that it inspected: 39 per cent of those systems were classified as high overall risk with 34 per cent labeled medium overall risk and 27 per cent categorized as low overall risk. The high risk water systems affect 25 per cent of the on-reserve population base. It is important to note that a water or wastewater system's risk rating is a measure of overall system management risk, not necessarily of water safety or water quality. Operation and Maintenance (O&M), operator qualification, and record keeping account for 60 per cent of the risk measured. This underscores the vital importance of having trained and certified operators for reducing risk and helping to ensure safe drinking water in First Nation communities.

The majority of high risk systems serve a small population. Water systems in remote communities are 2.5 times more likely to be high risk than low risk. While the National Assessment identified 314 water systems as high risk, 161 water systems in 116 First Nation communities were under Health Canada Drinking-Water Advisories (DWA) as of February 2011. These DWAs may be impacting up to 18,900 people, which is approximately 3.9 percent of the total on-reserve population cited as 484,321 in the National Roll-up.

For the 532 wastewater systems inspected, 14 per cent were evaluated as high overall risk, 51 per cent as medium overall risk, and 35 per cent as low overall risk.

Cost

Having assessed the risk level of each system, the contractor identified the financial cost to meet the department's protocols for safe water and wastewater. The total estimated cost is $1.2 billion which includes, amongst other factors, the development of better management practices, improved operator training, increasing system capacity, and the construction of new infrastructure when required.

Growth

The contractor also projected the cost, over 10 years, of ensuring that water and wastewater systems for First Nations are able to grow with First Nation communities. Including the aforementioned $1.2 billion to meet the department's current protocols, the contractor's projections for the cost of new servicing is $4.7 billion.

Of this, the contractor also estimated future servicing costs in excess of $60,000 per home for 55 per cent of the communities.

As this cost per home is high, the contractor also recognized that, at a certain point, the cost of providing a typical servicing solution may begin to exceed the benefits of that solution.

While increasing funding for capital projects may seem like the only solution, it is important to recognize that the report states that only 30 per cent of the risk identified in high risk systems was due to design risk and infrastructure.

The costs outlined in the National Assessment are estimates which were provided to support planning to meet both short-term and long-term water and wastewater needs of First Nation communities. However, the estimates will not replace the more detailed feasibility studies needed to assess and price specific projects.

As the National Assessment report notes, the 10-year growth estimates in the National Assessment are based on a series of assumptions. For example, the assessment recommends full piped systems for many communities where such a system may not be the most cost-effective or sustainable option that also meets the health and safety requirements. Another example is future growth requirements which are based on a projected housing growth of 4,400 houses per year. This is significantly higher than the average net growth of 1,700 houses per year over the past five years.

The Department will work closely with First Nations to ensure that new projects identify the most cost-effective ways to appropriately meet a community's health and safety needs. In many cases this may mean supporting First Nations in developing smaller systems, such as wells and cisterns.

Finally, the contractor made a series of recommendations to address the issues raised in National Assessment results, focused on three areas: infrastructure, capacity and operations, and standards and regulations.

Date: July 14, 2011