Tag Archives: climate change

Climate Change increasing waterborne diseases in the Arctic?

It is the old and the young most at risk from infectious gastrointestinal illnesses in Canadian Inuit populations. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.

From India to Canada, today we see the water related challenges another group of people face as a result of changing climate.

A multi disciplinary study published recently in the journal EcoHealth has found that the effect that climate change will have on the hydrological cycle is likely to increase the risk of waterborne disease for the indigenous Inuit in Canada.

This study looked at visits to medical clinics by people with infectious gastrointestinal Illnesses (IGI’s, aka tummy bugs) in two remote Inuit communities in Labrador, Nain and Rigolet. The study was carried out by researchers (epidemiologists, climatologists, and hydrologists), as well as community members, and both local and central Canadian government.

From data gathered by statistics Canada in 2004, 34% of Canadian Inuit reported that there were times during the year when they thought their water was contaminated, with 18% feeling that it was unsafe to drink their tap water. In the community of Rigolet (with a population of 269 people), 100% of resident Inuit felt their drinking water was not safe at certain times of year.

Remote Inuit communities such as this one often have higher negative health indicators than the general Canadian population. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Recently, the local weather in the area has been changing, with higher temperatures, more intense and frequent storms, and changes in rainfall pattern.

Heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt increase water speed (velocity), overland flow, and shallow subsurface flow of water to rivers. This in turn may increase sediment loads in waterways and transport harmful pathogens such as E.Coli.

Many Inuit prefer to drink water from streams and rivers rather than treated from tap, and in some remote regions, it is all they have access to. Canadian Inuit often live subsistence lifestyles, with higher rates of tuberculosis, infant mortality, and shorter life expectancies than other Canadians.

This study found that those who drink untreated brook (stream) water appeared to be at greater risk of exposure to pathogens, than those who did not. Visits to medical clinics for IGI’s were higher in the weeks after heavy rainfall. As heavy rain is predicted to increase with the changing climate, the study suggests that this pattern will be exacerbated.

Those most at risk appeared to be young and elderly women, and it was suggested that this was the case due to higher exposure to pathogens during food preparation.

I found it interesting that in this study, the senior age group was 65+ rather than 75+ as there were so few people older than 75, due to the shorter life expectancy of Inuit people. With so few people over the age of 75, it was impossible to ensure that data gathered in this age bracket could remain anonymous.

The study concluded by suggesting that more needs to be done in terms of treating drinking water to protect public health in the future with the effects of climate change.

Other indigenous communities around the world, such as the Batwa people of Equatorial Africa, also struggle with changes in their environment as climate change progresses.

Indigenous people and climate change

Many indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to climate change as they live closely with, and rely on, the natural environment. This increases the effect on the population of even subtle changes in the climate.

It is rather ironic that this is the case, as indigenous communities often live in sustainable ways, in harmony with the environment. Indigenous populations in general have substantially lower carbon footprints than non-indigenous communities, who are more shielded from climate change because of their distance from the natural environment.

However, non-indigenous people are not immune to these issues. It has been said that indigenous people often act as a ‘crystal ball’ and show what is likely to become a widespread phenomena in the future.

This study was conducted as part of a larger collaboration by the IHACC (Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change), which works with indigenous people around the world, including in the Arctic, Peru and Uganda.


Harper, S.L., Edge, V.L., Schuster-Wallace, C.J., Berke, O., McEwen, S.A. (2011) Weather, Water Quality and Infectious Gastrointestinal Illnesses in Two Inuit Communities in Nunatsiavut, Canada: Potential Implications for Climate Change. EcoHealth, Vol. 8 (1), 93-108.

National Geographic.



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Creating artificial glaciers to fight climate change

In India, the retreat of glaciers is causing water shortages for many villagers. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds of millions of people rely on glaciers as natural water reservoirs which collect and store precipitation in the winter, and provide water as they melt in summer. This is especially the case in the Himalayas, where glaciers feed rivers such as the Ganges in India and the Yangtze in China. In both cases, over 300 million people rely on the water that flows down these rivers for washing, drinking, agriculture and power.

Many villages in the Indian highlands are facing water shortages as small low altitude valley glaciers retreat, or in some cases, melt altogether, leaving villagers unable to grow the staple crops they rely on to live.

In the Ladakh region in India, 70% of water is sourced from melting glaciers. Meteorological data has shown that winters in the region are warming, snowfall is declining, and summer temperatures are increasing.

However, a retired civil engineer is fighting back against the water shortages.

Chewang Norphel has been harnessing the abundance of water as snow and ice melts, and constructing artificial glaciers to use when water is scarce. Norphel was inspired by the practice of leaving taps running overnight to prevent water pipes from freezing. He created the first artificial glacier in 1987 in Phuktse Phu village.

Each glacier costs upwards of $5000 US dollars, and the availability of money has proved to be a problem for Norphel. Other challenges he has faced is a lack of interest in building glaciers from villagers receiving subsidized food from the government, and issues around accessibility and transport costs as the glaciers are constructed at altitude of around 4,600 meters above sea level.

However, the process is far easier and cheaper than constructing a water reservoir, and uses as many local materials as possible. Freezing the water in winter also gets around the challenge of evaporation that a water reservoir would face.

How are artificial glaciers constructed?
At the start of winter (November), melt water from higher altitude glaciers is diverted at low velocities using constructed channels into ponds. These are located on shaded mountainsides where the water will freeze. This process continues throughout the winter months.

So far, many of these artificial glaciers have been constructed, with the melt water from them in spring used to irrigate vegetable, barley and wheat.

A model for the future?
Unfortunately, once the large feeding glaciers are gone, there will be no melt water to use to construct artificial glaciers. But for now, these constructions are sustaining life for many people in the Ladakh region.

And the last word today comes from the admirable Chewang Norphel

“My humble suggestion to the people of the regions that have already been hit by climate change or will be in the future would be that they should act and make things happen. To the world leaders, my humble request to them is they work hard to evolve an agreement that will safeguard the future and interests of the people of the entire planet.”

The Guardian UK.
IPS News, Creating Artificial Glaciers is Simple, Easy and Replicable.
IPS News, ‘Glacier Man Vows to Build More Artificial Glaciers.
National Geographic.

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