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Preview 1 - Kick the Bucket: Rural Sanitation in Alaska

Apr 15, 2015

April 15, 2015

News Director Joaqlin Estus is producing a series of stories about rural sanitation in Alaska. Check back to see photos and interviews in coming days. 

Tune in at 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. the week of April 27, 2015 for the 5-part series on rural sanitation in Alaska. 

As mentioned earlier, the lack of modern sanitation in Alaska is linked to severe respiratory infections and skin infections. In parts of the country with ample fresh water, piped water and sewer provide people with enough water that they use it freely. They wash their hands in fresh water frequently, reducing disease transmission. People who have water only at great effort wash up less often and spread germs. Overcrowding, and weather that keeps people inside together, contribute to the problem of disease transmission.  The lack of piped water and flush toilets is causing disease in rural Alaska. 

Thousands of Alaskans -- predominantly Alaska Native (Yup'ik, Athabascan, and Inupiaq) lack plumbing. They haul water from a central watering point, collect rain water, and melt river or lake ice for drinking and household use. And thousands use 5-gallon “honey buckets” as toilets, then hand carry them to empty in a bin or bunker.

In these three excerpts of an interview, Stanley Hawley, of Kivalina, describes the overcrowding at his house, and how he'd like to build a house with a view and space to accommodate a dining room table big enough so his whole family could eat at the same time.

In this audio clip, Kivalina Community Health Aid Isabelle Booth describes the health effects she sees when the village water tank runs dry. 

Others have haul systems. People dump their honey-buckets into a bin or bunker that city workers periodically empty into a sewage lagoon. Some households have flush toilets and a holding tank that gets emptied regularly. People might get water delivered once or twice a month, or go to a washeteria to buy water and haul it home. 

Anytime you have people hauling water by hand, and probably even more so when they’re paying for it by the gallon, they conserve its use. So haul systems and delivered water don't have the same health benefits as piped water and sewer.

In these two excerpts of an interview, President and CEO of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Dan Winkelman, talks about the problem and possible remedies, and shares an anecdote about a late-night phone call from his mother-in-law.

So why not put in piped water and sewer everywhere? 

It costs a lot. This is rural Alaska, after all. Everything has to be brought in by boat or plane, sometimes into villages that don’t have roads - just footpaths, boardwalks and trails for all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmachines.

Measures taken to deal with extreme cold, permafrost (which can’t be melted or it becomes virtual quicksand in warmer months), vast distances, and high energy costs add up. It's expensive to take on big projects in rural Alaska. And piped water and sewer systems are big projects. For instance, they involve: 

  • Moving earth to build berms around a sewage lagoon
  • Installation of pipes, whether above- or below-ground 
  • Fuel storage and boilers to heat facilities and keep water and waste from freezing 
  • Pumps to keep water and waste moving
  • Chemical treatment of water, and 
  • Computerized mechanisms and controls. 

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, in 1994, said it was time to put the honey bucket into the museum. Federal agencies, primarily the Indian Health Service, already had been working to do that, and the state of Alaska joined in. They made great progress, going from 75% of households without service, to 75% with service. 

The state changed direction, though. State funding reached a high of $26 million in 1994. It gradually declined, and has been less than $10 million annually since 2011. State funding was $7.5 million in 2014. For many years, the state of Alaska has contributed the minimum 25% needed to match federal funds.

Still agencies soldiered on, and have brought the rate un- and under-served communities down to 6.2%.

Now, federal funding is on a sharp decline too. In 2014, federal funding was only a third of the amount allocated ten years earlier.

This comes as older systems have gone beyond their operational life and could fail at any time. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the lack of funding for maintenance and operations. 

More on that and possible remedies, next time.

This project was made possible with the support of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism,RAVN Airlines, and KYUK-FM in Bethel, Alaska. A special thanks goes to KYUK's Charles Enoch, field producer for interviews in Bethel, Kwethluk, and Tuntutuliak