Diagnosing Water Security in the Rural North with an Environmental Security Framework

By: Henry J.F. Penn, Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Arctic Institute of North America,University of Calgary; Philip A. Loring, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan; and William E. Schnabel, Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks

This study explored the nature of water security challenges in rural Alaska, using a framework for environmental security that entails four interrelated concepts: availability, access, utility, and stability of water resources. The goal was to tease apart the divergent narratives regarding the state of water security in rural Alaska, and diagnose existing challenges such that effective and sustainable solutions can be identified.

Community drinking water source in Alaska (2015). Photo courtesy of H. Penn.Community drinking water source in Alaska (2015). Photo courtesy of H. Penn.

Water security is generally defined as involving stable and affordable access to clean water in sufficient quality and quantities for maintaining health and enacting livelihoods (Cook & Bakker, 2012). In rural Alaska, water security at the household and community level has emerged as an important societal problem, though there's growing debate about both the nature and the relative scale of the issue, and these disagreements have led to different perspectives on the most appropriate solutions (Marino, White, Schweitzer, Chambers, and Wisniewski, 2009; U.S. Arctic Research Commission, 2015). In contrast to many areas of the world where local communities are challenged by water shortages and changing hydrological cycles (Vörösmarty et al., 2010; Wheater and Gober, 2015), the problem facing household water security in rural Alaska relates primarily to infrastructure (i.e., water and wastewater treatment facilities) (Eichelberger, 2010; U.S. Arctic Research Commission, 2015) and community development policies (Eichelberger, 2012). Reports about the severity and extent of the problems vary, however; it has become a regular anecdote, for example, to claim that it is not uncommon for homes in rural Alaska to lack piped water and sewer (Eichelberger, 2014). Conversely, official sources show that as of 2000, 93.7% of all Alaskan households had access to complete sanitation (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000; Hennessy et al., 2008), and health practitioners in the state contend that "nearly all villages have access to safe drinking water" (Hennessy et al., 2008). These findings notwithstanding, public health outcomes such as rates of water-washed diseases (infections that are caused by poor hygiene practices, such as handwashing and bathing) remain high (Hennessy et al., 2008; Gessner, 2008).

Many researchers and professionals agree that water insecurity is a problem in rural Alaska, although the scale and nature of the problem is contested. Some academics have argued that the problem is systemic and rooted in an approach to water security by the state that prioritizes economic concerns over public health concerns. Health practitioners and state agencies, on the other hand, contend that much progress has been made and that nearly all rural households have access to safe drinking water, though many are still lacking "modern" in-home water service.

We applied a four-dimensional framework for environmental security proposed by Loring et al. (2013) (see also Grumbine, 2014; Hossain, Loring, and Marsik, 2016) to synthesize ethnographic research on water security in rural communities in the Bristol Bay and Kotzebue Sound regions of Alaska (Penn, Loring, and Gerlach, 2016).

We identified key points of intervention for improving water security in the region and proposed a paradigm shift away from large-scale infrastructure projects, and instead toward community empowerment and stewardship as ways to improve the efficiency and stability of water systems, whether old or new. We specifically identified the importance of the Utility—the social institutions and organizations responsible for maintaining infrastructure, providing water services, and ensure people's needs are met—as the foundation of sustainable community water system management.

Our analysis highlights key human dimensions such as the role of policy and social narratives regarding modernization. Our analysis also illustrates the effectiveness of this environmental security framework for unpacking the human dimensions of water security at the community and household level, which Wheater and Gober (2015) identify as a priority for water security research.

Importantly, what the exercise revealed, which is very much in line with what community members have repeatedly expressed to us (Loring, Gerlach, and Penn, 2016; Penn et al., 2016), is that the problem of water security is primarily one rooted in historical legacies of poorly planned infrastructure development. Many communities are operating aged systems for water and wastewater management that are well past their planned end of life, that are expensive to operate and challenging to maintain, and that were not designed with the nuances of Arctic landscapes and climate in mind (Marino et al., 2009; U.S. Arctic Research Commission, 2015).

The diagnostic approach we implemented helped to identify solutions to these challenges, which accordingly focus on place-based needs and empowering local actors. The framework likewise proved to be broadly applicable to exploring water security concerns elsewhere in the world.

This work is a part of the Sustainable Futures North program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Arctic Science, Education, and Engineering for Sustainability (Arctic SEES) (grant #1263853); from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Climate Program Office Grant (grant #NA11OAR4310141) through the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate-Society Interactions program (grant #NA11OAR4310135).


Cook, C., and Bakker, K. (2012). Water security: Debating an emerging paradigm. Global Environmental Change, 22, 94–102.

Eichelberger, L. (2010). Living in Utility scarcity: energy and water insecurity in northwest Alaska. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1010–1018.

Eichelberger, L. (2012). Sustainability and the politics of calculation: technologies of "safe water," subject-making and domination. Journal of Political Ecology, 19, 145–161.

Eichelberger, L. (2014). Spoiling and Sustaining: Technology, water insecurity, and visibility in Arctic Alaska. Medical Anthropology, 33, 478–496.

Gessner, B. D. (2008). Lack of piped water and sewage services is associated with pediatric lower respiratory tract infection in Alaska. The Journal of Pediatrics, 152(5), 666–670. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.10.049

Grumbine, R. E. (2014). Assessing environmental security in China. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(7), 403–411.

Hennessy, T. W., Ritter, T., Holman, R., Bruden, D., Yorita, K. L., Bulkow, L., Cheek, J.E., Singleton, R.J., Smith, J. (2008). The Relationship Between In-Home Water Service and the Risk of Respiratory Tract, Skin, and Gastrointestinal Tract Infections Among Rural Alaska Natives. American Journal of Public Health, 98(11).

Hossain, Y., Loring, P. A., & Marsik, T. (2016). Defining Energy Security in the Rural North - Historical and Contemporary Perspectives from Alaska. Energy Research and Social Science, 16, 89–97.

Loring, P. A., Gerlach, S. C., & Huntington, H. P. (2013). The new environmental security: Linking food, water, and energy for integrative and diagnostic social-ecological research. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, 3(4), 55–61.

Loring, P. A., Gerlach, S. C., & Penn, H. (2016). Community work in a climate of adaptation: responding to change in rural Alaska. Human Ecology, (Online First).

Marino, E., White, D., Schweitzer, P., Chambers, M., & Wisniewski, J. (2009). Drinking water in Northwestern Alaska: Using or not using centralized water systems in two rural communities. Arctic, 62(1), 75–82.

Penn, H., Loring, P. A., & Gerlach, S. C. (2016). Seasons of stress: understanding the dynamic nature of people's ability to respond to change and surprise. Weather, Climate and Society. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-15-0061.1

U.S. Arctic Research Commission. (2015). Alaskan Water and Sanitation Retrospective 1970-2005. Anchorage, Alaska: US Arctic Research Commission.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2000). US Summary, 2000. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/c2kprof00- us.pdf.

Vörösmarty, C. J., P. B. McIntyre, M. O. Gessner, D. Dudgeon, A. Prusevich, P. Green, S. Glidden, S.E. Bunn, C.A. Sullivan, C. Reid Liermann, P. M. Davies. (2010). Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature, 467(7315), 555–561.

Wheater, H. S., and Gober, P. (2015). Water security and the science agenda. Water Resources Research, 51(7), 5406–5424.