Climate Change Linked to Waterborne Diseases in Inuit Communities

As global warming triggers heavier rainfall and faster snowmelt in the Arctic, Inuit communities in Canada are reporting more cases of illness attributed to pathogens that have washed into surface water and groundwater, according to a new study.

The findings corroborate past research that suggests indigenous people worldwide are being disproportionately affected by climate change. This is because many of them live in regions where the effects are felt first and most strongly, and they might come into closer contact with the natural environment on a daily basis. For example, some indigenous communities lack access to treated water because they are far from urban areas.

“In the north, a lot of [Inuit] communities prefer to drink brook water instead of treated tap water. It’s just a preference,” explained study lead author Sherilee Harper, a Vanier Canada graduate scholar in epidemiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “Also, when they’re out on the land and hunting or fishing, they don’t have access to tap water, so they drink brook water.”

The experiences of the Inuit and other indigenous communities as they struggle to adapt to changing climate conditions could help guide humanity in the coming years when the effects of climate change are felt universally, scientists say.

“These societies are like crystal balls for understanding what could happen when these changes start materializing over the next few decades down south, as they surely will,” said James Ford of McGill University, an expert in indigenous adaptation to climate change who was not involved in the study.

“Scientists often talk about how if global temperature increases by 4 degrees Celsius [7°F], there will be catastrophic climate change effects, Ford said, “but where I work in the Arctic, we’ve already seen that 4-degree Celsius change.”

Weather and Illness

Ford said the new study is the first to draw a link between climate change and disease in Canadian Arctic communities. “Water issues have been largely neglected in the [climate change] scholarship,” he said.

“Before this study, there was very little understanding of the burden of illness of waterborne disease in the Arctic . . . The baseline that we have from this study will allow us to track whether changes in behavior make a difference in the future,” said Ford.


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