31 January 2019

Lecture: Introduction to Arctic WASH

Author/Compiled by
Petter D. Jenssen, NMBU

Executive Summary

The Arctic is the coldest and one of the least populated regions in the world. This offers very specific challenges for sustainable sanitation and water management. Different aspects, including permafrost conditions, traditional health systems and the vulnerability of the natural arctic ecosystem need to be considered when water supply, wastewater management, sanitation and health services are developed. This lecture provides an introduction to Arctic WASH, relevant background information and an overview of key aspects that need to be considered in Arctic WASH.


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The Arctic is the coldest habited region on the globe. Thus, the natural conditions create more challenges for water supply and wastewater management than in other regions at lower latitudes. Many of the poorer Arctic communities experience health problems related to inadequate water supply and/or poor sanitation. This calls for improvement, but it may not be easy when permafrost eliminates the option of groundwater utilization and cold conditions makes transport of surface water from lakes or rivers very expensive, if such water sources are even available. An investment cost of 6'000 Canadian Dollars/meter (equivalent to approx. 4'000 €) is reported for water and sewer lines in northern Canada. This is due to insulation needs, heating cables and above ground suspension of the pipes due to permafrost.

The total population in the Arctic is just over 13 million. This is extremely low compared to the vast area of the Northernmost region of the globe. In Greenland the ice-free surface area equals the area of Norway, but the population is only 55'000. With such low population density it can be argued that discharge of untreated wastewater to the open sea is unproblematic. Discharge of organic matter and nutrients probably makes minimal impact, but wastewater may contain organic micropollutants as pharmaceuticals, personal care products (PPCP`s) and microorganisms harboring antibiotic resistant genes. Organic micropollutants are found in increasing amounts in polar mammals and may be the cause of reproductive disorders observed among polar bears. Thus it may be more important to remove organic micropollutants or particles, to which microorganisms with antibiotic resistant genes may be associated, than traditional pollutants as organic matter and nutrients. New and better adopted solutions are therefore needed in the Arctic. This course gives an overview of water supply and treatment options for single homes and towns in the Arctic, and also background on demography and health conditions, which is all needed to find solutions that are sustainable from both a socioeconomic and environmental aspect.

Learning objectives

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At the end of this lecture students will have:

  • gained insights into the context and key challenges for WASH solutions in the Arctic
  • an overview of key topics that need to be considered when identifying sustainable WASH solutions


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Library References

A Review of Wastewater Handling in the Arctic with Special Reference to Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) and Microbial Pollution

Treatment of wastewater is often inadequate or completely lacking in Arctic regions. Wastewater contains different kinds of substances that can be harmful for the environment and human health, including residues of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Bioaccumulation and biomagnifications of chemicals in the food web are of concern. This can affect fishery that is a significant industry in many Arctic coastal regions. Wastewater from human settlements may also contain antibiotic resistant bacteria and pathogens that can cause negative impacts on human health and the environment. In the Arctic, especially, the direct release of untreated sewage may have severe consequences for the receiving environment due to low biological diversity, low ambient temperatures and consequently high vulnerability of the Arctic ecosystem to environmental contaminants.

GUNNARSDOTTIR, R. et al. (2012): A Review of Wastewater Handling in the Arctic with Special Reference to Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) and Microbial Pollution. In: Ecological Engineering: Volume 50 , 76-85. URL [Accessed: 16.12.2018]

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