For some Alaska villages, the lack of modern water and sewer service means more health risks


On a ridge rising over the Bering Strait coast lies the resting place for one community’s sewage.

In Teller, an Iñupiat community of about 250, homes have no flush toilets — nor are there pipes carrying waste to municipal treatment plants. Instead, there is a dumpsite about 5 miles from town for plastic bags filled with urine and feces, many of them punctured and leaking.

This is what is known in Alaska as a “honey bucket lagoon” — a disposal site for the contents of the 5-gallon buckets that serve as toilets for Teller’s residents.

“At least it’s not overflowing,” said Blanche Okbaok-Garnie, Teller’s mayor, who shielded her nose at times when the wind carried the stench from deposited waste and the containers that held it.

That makes the current site is an improvement over a previous honey bucket lagoon, Obkaok-Garnie said. The old site, at a slightly lower elevation, was “too tiny and too full” and was, through repeated freeze-thaw cycles, threatening the drinking water source below, she said. But even this new site, started in 2017, is on borrowed time, she believes. “I think it needs to be designed for permafrost more. It just won’t last,” she said.

Managing sewage and protecting clean water for drinking and washing can be a daunting challenge for many communities — often predominately Indigenous — in rural Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic, where the lack of facilities combines with challenging conditions made increasingly uncertain as the Arctic quickly warms.

Arctic residents without piped water or sewage service — or with service that is substandard — have long faced higher rates of contagious diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different; Alaska Natives make up 16 percent of the state’s population but as of early September, accounted for 29 percent of the state’s COVID deaths.

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Artic Today, 30 November 2021