Published On: September 2022

The content of this Situation Report was written by:

  • Charmaine White, Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley
  • Robert Newell, Royal Roads University & Food and Agriculture Institute, University of the Fraser Valley

The Inuit homeland known as the Inuit Nunangat encompasses 35% of Canada’s landmass and 50% of its coastline (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami [ITK], 2021), encompassing the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Nunavik (a region that spans Nord-du-Québec Nunatsiavut, and Northern Labrador) (Native-Land, 2021). The Inuit Nunangat Food Security Strategy released in 2021 by the national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, details how Nunavut and the northern coastline face numerous food and water security challenges, which stem from the legacy of colonization and are being compounded by climate change. In the Arctic Region, Nunavut and its communities located on the northern coast are projected to experience some of the most rapid and significant climate change effects than anywhere else on the globe, warming more rapidly than the global average (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2013; Lemmen et al., 2016).

Regional Descriptions

The Inuit have lived in their homeland since time immemorial (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami [ITK], 2021), with oral storytelling dating back to the origins of Inuit on the Arctic Archipelago as early as 4,000 years ago (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency [CNEDA], n.d.). There are four Inuit regions in Canada, collectively known by the Canadian Inuit as “Inuit Nunangat”, a term that includes the land, water, and ice of Inuit homelands (ITK, 2021). Prior to the establishment of the territory of Nunavut, the area was included within the Northwest Territories. On April 1, 1999, an agreement between the Canadian Government and the Inuit resulted in the creation of Nunavut, and it remains the most recently established of Canada’s territories and provinces. The agreement legally defined Aboriginal rights to land and water in this territory with an elected government to serve the interests of all Nunavummiut (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, 2004). The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act (NLCA) is the largest Indigenous land-claims settlement in Canada’s history to date, and the NLCA and Nunavut Act acknowledge the unique systems of the Inuit who occupied the territory, thereby entrenching their culture and lifestyle into the foundations of Nunavut (Destination Nunavut, 2021; ITK, 2021). 

Nunavut has over 1.8 million km² of land, making it the largest of all the territories and provinces in Canada in terms of land area but also with the smallest population, an estimated 39,353 residents in 2020 (Statistics Canada, 2021; Statistics Canada, 2017). Nunavut is the least populated of all the provinces and territories of Canada and is accessible only by air or sea (CNEDA, n.d.). Nunavut’s population is young, with an average age of 27.7 years, compared with the Canadian national average of 41. From 2011 to 2016, Nunavut’s population increased by 12%, which was the fastest rate experienced among all the territories and provinces in Canada (Lepage, et al., 2019). In 2016, the Inuit made up 84.9% of the population of Nunavut, 76.8% of the population reported being able to conduct a conversation in Inuktut, which refers to the collection of dialects and regional variants of Inuit languages (Lepage, et al., 2019). Inuit languages such Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, and Inuvialuktun are spoken within the territory, along with English and French (Lepage, et al., 2019). 

In 2018, Nunavut’s gross domestic product (GDP) totaled to just over $3 billion. Government is the largest employer in the territory, and government services comprised $810 million of the GDP in 2018 (ITK, 2021; Statistics Canada, 2021). Nunavut’s economy is also highly resource-based, involving industries such as mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction contributing $690 million to Nunavut’s GDP (Statistics Canada, 2021).

The territory of Nunavut has three geographically-and culturally-distinct regions: Qikiqtani Region, Kivalliq Region, and Kitikmeot Region. The Qikiqtani Region (formerly the Baffin Region) in the east of Nunavut contains Iqaluit, the ca

pital and largest community of the territory. The geography of this region includes fjords rich with marine animals, high mountain peaks and glaciers, numerous archaeological sites of interest, and parks and protected areas such as Auyuittuq National Park (CNEDA, n.d.). The Kivalliq Region (formerly the Keewatin Region) is on the west of Hudson’s Bay, and its administrative centre is Rankin Inlet. Inuit communities in the inland areas of Kivalliq Region utilize the rivers and lakes, and polar bears migrate through the region in late fall (CNEDA, n.d.).

The Kitikmeot Region the most western region of Nunavut, and it contains rolling tundra, an abundance of rivers and lakes, and a variety of land and marine wildlife, such as caribou, wolves, muskox, grizzly bears, migratory birds, seals, bowhead whales, beluga, and narwhals (Destination Nunavut, 2021). The total population of the Kitikmeot Region was estimated to be over 6,500 in 2016, with approximately a fifth (i.e., over 1,300) of this population residing in Gjoa Haven (Statistics Canada, 2017). Gjoa Haven in Inuktitut is also called Uqsuqtuuk translating to ‘place of plenty blubber’, the Inuit of Gjoa Haven are Netsilingmiut translating to ‘people of the place where there is seal’ (CNEDA, n.d.; Destination Nunavut, 2021). During the period of 1981 to 2010, average air temperatures in Gjoa Haven ranged between -30 °C and -37 °C in January, and between 12°C and 3.8 °C in July. Annual precipitation on average consists of 78.4 mm of rain and 1304 mm of snow (Government of Canada, 2021). Across the Queen Maud Gulf from Gjoa Haven is the Ahiak Migratory Bird Sanctuary (AMBS), an area that encompasses the most extensive wetlands in the central Arctic. The AMBS provides an essential habitat for over 1% of the global white geese population, and it is primarily composed of wet meadow and marsh, dry and heath tundra, lakes, rivers, boulder fields, and marine waters. It is a place of cultural significance to the Inuit, being a place known for numerous archaeological features and an important area for harvesting wildlife, birds, eggs, berries, and fish (Government of Canada, 2020).

Potential and existing disruptions to regional water security

Climate change is contributing to water insecurity in Nunavut and the Inuit Nunangat. With hotter and drier seasons, water sources and drinking water are further jeopardized (ITK, 2020). Rising temperatures have altered precipitation and evaporation patterns contributing to the disappearance of freshwater ponds and lakes (ITK, 2020). The annual average warming in the Arctic is more than twice the global mean (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme [AMAP], 2019), resulting in rapid snowmelt and heavy rainfalls that transports pathogens into historically-potable, untreated water sources such as freshwater streams and lakes (AMAP, 2021). Climate change is also impacting local and regional food security by affecting the availability and abundance of marine-based traditional foods that are foundational to Indigenous well-being and culture, such as whales, walruses, seals, and seabirds (AMAP, 2021). The lifecycles and ecosystems of these marine species are impacted by the warming of and influx of freshwater into the Arctic Ocean, as well as thawing of permafrost which can release contaminants into rivers, lakes, and marine ecosystems. A loss of Arctic sea-ice, which has experienced a 75% reduction in volume during September compared to 1979, has resulted in a lengthening of the open water period (AMAP, 2019; AMAP, 2021).

Climate change is impacting Nunavut and other northern coastlines of Canada with changes in permafrost and coastal erosion. Nunavut’s land is experiencing isostatic rebound, the rebounding back of the land to its former height due to the disappearance of large ice sheets, which covered and weighed down the land (Lemmen et al., 2016). Rising temperatures of IPCC’s high-emissions scenario featured in their Fifth Assessment Report projects that Northern Canada will experience a median sea-level change ranging from -90 cm to -50 cm by 2100 (Lemmen et al., 2016). Permafrost is being impacted by warming temperatures, which in turn impacts the land. Permafrost functions as a binding agent, and as the frozen ground melts, the structural integrity of the coast weakens, leaving it susceptible to erosion by changing sea levels, storm surges, and waves (Lemmen et al., 2016). Changes in permafrost also impact infrastructure that was designed to be situated on permanently frozen ground, such as water and waste containment facilities (Nunavut Climate Change Secretariat, n.d.)

Economic activities and development are also contributing to water challenges in Nunavut and pressures on its marine ecosystems. With reduced sea-ice, there will be an increased opportunity for oil-and-gas exploration and development (Lemmen et al., 2016). Arctic tourism has increased in recent years communities such as Gjoa Haven, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, has seen one of the largest increases in marine vessel passages, necessitating new research and policy for climate change adaptation with respect to  shipping governance in the Canadian Arctic (Carter et al., 2017; Lemmen et al., 2016; AMAP, 2021). While more visitors to the north has benefits to the local economy in Nunavut communities, issues arise from increased demands on Nunavut’s infrastructure. Overfishing/overharvesting is increasingly becoming a concern as sport fishing and hunting in the territory garners more international attention and recognition, and the increase in fishing tourism also bring marine congestion and higher likelihood of a fuel or oil spill, with longer-lasting impacts in the north where oil deposits take longer to decompose in the cold waters (Lemmen et al., 2016; AMAP, 2021). 

The recent water contamination crisis in Iqaluit highlights other significant water concerns in the territory. In October 2021, the results of water quality tests showed exceedingly high concentrations of diesel contaminants in one of Iqaluit’s two in-ground water tanks (Tucker, 2021). A ‘do not consume order’ was placed in effect for residents, restricting people from using the water for drinking and cooking, and surgeries were postponed as proper sterilization could not take place (Tucker, 2021). The source of the contamination was an underground fuel storage tank installed in 1962 from the original water treatment plant, that was seeping into the city’s water system through their raw water holding tank where water is stored before treatment (CBC News, 2021). 

Although the contamination issue discussed above occurred in Iqaluit, water contamination is not isolated to the one community, and it is a major concern in communities throughout the North. The Inuit Nunangat receive limited investments in comparison to most other regions of Canada and disproportionately experience boil water advisories (BWAs). Between January 2015 and October 2020, 298 BWAs were issued in 29 communities in the Inuit Nunangat, four of which lasted longer than 12 months (ITK, 2020). In Nunavut, 25 BWAs were issued in 11 communities, and a total of 1580 days under BWAs were experienced (ITK, 2020). In addition, 86% of water treatment facilities and 84% of water pump stations in Nunavut are reported to be in poor condition (ITK, 2020). The high number of BWAs in the territory is a result of aging water infrastructure left vulnerable to disrepair or failure, and these issues are compounded by problems related to overcrowding in homes and inadequate housing construction (ITK, 2020). At the time of writing, there were five water advisories in place for Nunavut, one ‘do not consume’ water advisory in place for Iqaluit, and four BWAs with one in Sanikiluaq (in the Qikiqtaaluk Region) being in place since January 2018 (Water Today, 2021).

Current initiatives and efforts 

Ahiak Area Co-management Committee (ACMC) are advisory committees responsible for the day-to-day management of the conservation areas in Nunavut. ACMC members are appointed by the Regional Inuit Association and the Canadian Wildlife Service and are from the local communities.

Climate Change Nunavut (NC³) is a web-based climate change resource centre intended to provide current climate change information relevant to Nunavummiut. It was developed by the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment to share and distribute climate change knowledge in Nunavut and make information more accessible to the public. The NC³ assists with implementing the objectives by the Upagiaqtavut: Setting the Course climate action framework document, and it increases national and global awareness of climate change impacts in Nunavut.

Inuit Nunangat Food Security Strategy (INFSS) was published in July 2021 by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representative organization for Inuit in Canada. The INFSS advances Inuit-driven solutions for improving food security and creating a sustainable food system in Inuit Nunangat. The INFSS is organized into two parts. Part 1 provides information about food insecurity prevalence, the Inuit Nunangat food system, and the drivers of food insecurity. It identifies evidence-based interventions for supporting vulnerable families and their potential application in Inuit communities. Part 2 connects this information to five priority areas for action and investment, as well as corresponding objectives and actions for improving food security and supporting food sovereignty.

ITK’s 2020-2023 Strategy and Action Plan incorporates deliverables in the form of ITK Quarterly Research Briefings, including the Access to Drinking Water in Inuit Nunangat ITK Quarterly Research Briefing Autumn 2020, Issue No. 2. These briefings provide analysis of timely policy matters that are of direct relevance to Inuit and are consistent with the department’s mandate to produce research and analysis that can be used to support the advancement of Inuit priorities. 

Nunavut Water Board has responsibilities and powers over the use, management, and regulation of inland water in Nunavut, and its objectives are to provide for the conservation and utilization of waters in Nunavut (with the exception of national parks) in a manner that will provide the optimal benefits for the residents of Nunavut (and Canadians in general).

Nunavut Marine Council (NMC) is a mechanism for utilizing the shared experience and knowledge of Nunavut’s Institutions of Public Government to address marine issues that are broader than any one organization’s mandate. NMC initiatives are advanced through coordination and cooperation between the board members and staff of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the Nunavut Planning Commission, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, and the Nunavut Water Board.

The Nunavut Wastewater Treatment Program was a six-year study that examined the different aspects of municipal wastewater treatment in Nunavut. The study was funded by the Community and Government Services division of the Government of Nunavut. The objective was to assess the treatment performance of existing wastewater treatment systems in Nunavut.


Climate change exerts significant water-related impacts on Nunavut communities, and numerous climate changes have been conducted in the Arctic, including those on glacier retreat, sea-ice and lake-ice thinning, thawing of permafrost, coastal erosion from wave action, changes in ocean currents, and shifting ranges of plant and animal species (Government of Nunavut, 2011). In response to these (and other) challenges, the Government of Nunavut prepared Upagiaqtavut: Setting the Course, which aims to provide a clear direction towards a more sustainable and resilient future for Nunavut. The Government of Nunavut’s primary goal with respect to climate change is to increase adaptive capacity by ensuring Nunavummiut have knowledge and skills for adapting to the changing climate and environmental conditions.

Future priorities and plans

The following future priorities and plans of the Government of Nunavut are divided into four main focus areas for Nunavut’s approach to climate change adaptation planning. These four major and subsequent objectives are taken directly from Upagiaqtavut: Setting the Course, which if accessed expands within each objective how it relates to issues relating to water challenges.

  • Objective 1: Partnership Building
    • Objective 1.1: Identify new and innovative partnership opportunities with the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments, communities, other organizations, universities, private sector, and individuals in order to facilitate a fully coordinated approach to climate change.
    • Objective 1.2:  Establish an interdepartmental climate change working group.
  • Objective 2: Research and Monitoring of Impacts
    • Objective 2.1: Strengthen research and monitoring of impacts in Nunavut through partnerships with communities, organizations and the Federal Government.
  • Objective 3: Education and Outreach
    • Objective 3.1: Develop and disseminate climate change awareness material and tools.
    • Objective 3.2: Encourage and support continued transfer of knowledge and skills from elders to youth.
    • Objective 3.3: Ensure all aspects of climate change are incorporated into school curricula.
    • Objective 3.4: Increase national and global awareness of the climate change impacts on Nunavut and Inuit culture.
  • Objective 4: Government Policy and Planning
    • Objective 4.1: Integrate climate change considerations into all government decision-making.
    • Objective 4.2: Ensure climate change considerations are integrated into land use planning and environmental assessments. 
    • Objective 4.3: Identify new economic opportunities associated with climate change.
    • Objective 4.4: Work with our partners to ensure climate change impacts are considered in emergency planning

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