Safe drinking water and wastewater sanitation are universally recognized as critical components of public health. It is well documented that a lack of access to these basic services results in millions of preventable deaths each year among vulnerable populations. Water and wastewater technologies and management practices are frequently tailored to local environmental conditions. Also important, but often overlooked in water management planning, are the social, cultural and economic contexts in which services are provided. The purpose of this qualitative case study was to identify and understand residents' perceptions of the functionality of current water and wastewater sanitation systems in one vulnerable context, that of a remote Arctic Aboriginal community (Coral Harbour, Nunavut), and to identify potential future water related health risks. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 28 Inuit residents and 9 key informants in 2011 and 2012. Findings indicate that the population's rapid transition from a semi-nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to permanent settlements with municipally provided utilities is influencing present-day water usage patterns, public health perceptions, and the level of priority decision-makers place on water and wastewater management issues. Simultaneously environmental, social and cultural conditions conducive to increased human exposure to waterborne health risks were also found to exist and may be increasing in the settlements. While water and wastewater system design decisions are often based on best practices proven suitable in similar environmental conditions, this study reinforces the argument for inclusion of social, cultural, and economic variables in such decisions, particularly in remote and economically challenged contexts in Canada or elsewhere around the world. The results also indicate that the addition of qualitative data about water and wastewater systems users' behaviours to technical knowledge of systems and operations can enhance the understanding of human-water interactions and be valuable in risk assessments and intervention development.
Keywords: Aboriginal health; Environmental health; Exposure pathways; Inuit health; Nunavut, Canada; Qualitative and visual methods; Rural and remote health; Water and wastewater.
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