22% of rural Alaska homes lack running water and a flush toilet, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation – Division of Water.
Photographer Clark James Mishler described the difference between living in an urban Anchorage residence and living in parts of rural Alaska as stark: “It’s like living in a third world country, but it’s right here in America, and it’s an hour from here.” The photographer told Frontier Scientists “Some of my favorite work has been documenting the people in the Southwest Alaska Yup’ik village of Kwethluk.” Mishler joined Peter and Vera Spein and their extended family in the rural village. He documented the family’s subsistence activities in bursts over the course of 6 years, gaining “A wealth of experience and a better understanding of how people on subsistence live.”
: While Mishler photographed life in Kwethluk Vera and Peter’s home had no running water. :
The differences between Anchorage, Mishler’s home base, and the rural Alaskan village were huge. “I just think that lifestyle in many villages is a lot tougher than anyone can imagine,” Mishler emphasized.
Living conditions for these rural Alaskan community members were very different than conditions for city dwellers. Mishler described: “When I first met them they had a one room house with a single light bulb in the middle of the ceiling and a linoleum floor that was fairly worn out. And I slept under the kitchen table among the chairs; that was the only space left.” Over time the Spein family grew. “They had more kids, and the house expanded to three rooms. The heating got better in the house, they got a little propane heater,” Mishler said, and “They had more lights in the house, so it was a brighter place. They got a television in the house. I saw all these things change as time went on.”
While Mishler photographed life in Kwethluk Vera and Peter’s home had no running water. Mishler told us “For the latrine, they are using a honey bucket– basically a bucket. You put a little bit of Lysol in there just to kind of kill the odor and you put a lid on it. That’s your toilet,” Mishler described. Periodically, the bucket was carried outside and emptied. Mishler said “For me there was not a yuk factor to that; it was totally interesting to be able to step back in time from an anthropological standpoint to see this in American at this time,” just an hour from Anchorage.
Living without plumbing
At the time the Speins would either collect water from the river for the family to use, or they would attach a trailer to their 4 wheeler then drive to a community water source with to haul water. Mishler outlined “They take it over to the pump, which is at the community laundry. And they fill up their containers, put them on the back of their trailer and take them back to their home, and store that water in big 55 gallon drums with a top on them on the porch.”
“There are showers at the laundry facility but that’s about a quarter of a mile away,” Mishler said, so “Instead of showers they do steams.” He’d join other men in a steam house. “You crawl in there and get the wood burner going, you bring the heat up to about 200 degrees, and you steam. And you do this about every other night on average.” Mishler: “I did not have a shower the whole time I was out there. We did steam baths… and it felt wonderful, particularly in the wintertime when it was just bitterly cold and windy and you are out there on the tundra.”
Mishler stated in a 2015 interview: “Some day they will have running water and some day they will have a bathroom but they don’t now and it’s kind of strange: to image that in modern America there are whole villages of people or sections of villages that are living without the basic things that have been (pretty much) a part of our collective lifestyles for the last 50-100 years. And yet they haven’t got there yet, [the technologies] haven’t made that leap yet,” into rural Alaska.
Where homes are not serviced for water and sewage, rural Alaskan residents either spend energy hauling water from central community water service points or drink water from untreated sources like rivers, rainfall, or melted snow.
Drinking water from untreated sources presents health risks including increased chances of pneumonia, influenza, and heightened rates of gastrointestinal infections, skin infections and respiratory diseases. Without plumbing, handwashing, dish and cutting board washing, and showering become far more inconvenient.
Places called sewage lagoons where human excrement is dumped are smelly and unsightly and, worse, pose a danger if their contents infiltrate water sources.
Lack of funding
“Funding to build systems has declined severely while costs have risen sharply. The deficit between available funds and needs is over $660 million,” notes the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation – Division of Water. And with current funding realities the DEC projects: “At best, funding for rural Alaska water and sewer projects can be expected to remain at current levels, with the gap between available sanitation funding and needs continuing to grow steadily.”
The DEC reports: “There are currently over 3,300 year-round occupied rural Alaska homes that lack running water and a flush toilet.” And “Over 700 homes are served by operation-intensive haul systems. Keeping existing systems operational is a challenge for most villages, and there are approximately 4,500 rural homes that are connected to community-wide piped systems that have surpassed or are nearing the end of their design life.”
Where traditional water and sewage systems do exist in rural communities, there are still drawbacks. Installing, operating and maintaining the systems is costly. And since many systems in existence were constructed decades ago they are “aging and deteriorating,” says the DEC, resulting in still higher maintenance costs.
Constructing water and sewage system is very challenging in parts of rural Alaska because of economic and logistic difficulties. Remote location and lack of road access is another issue; many communities are only accessible by water or air, making shipping supplies in costly. Permafrost conditions mean frozen ground and unsteady ground where permafrost is (or will one day be) thawing, making engineering and construction an enormous hassle.
Water to communities
Since the years when Mishler photographed Peter and Vera Spein’s family in Kwethluk, more water development in Kwethluk has benefited residents. The Alaska Native Health Tribal Health Consortium reported in 2016 ‘More Kwethluk residents receive home access to water and sewer’ (http://anthc.org/news/more-kwethluk-residents-receive-home-access-to-water-and-sewer/). 75 homes were connected to water services via piped distribution system. The article quotes Kwethluk resident Merna Spein: “It’s amazing to see it with your own eyes – a flushing toilet and running water. It’s pretty cool. I never thought that it would be able to happen here.”
You can learn a lot more about efforts to service rural areas with adequate water and sewer solutions at Alaska’s Water and Sewer Challenge website http://watersewerchallenge.alaska.gov/.
Laura Nielsen 2016
(Water access rural Alaska communities sewerage infrastructure statistics realities)
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