The federal government needs to bolster spending on water and wastewater treatment by the hundreds of millions, if not billions, if it hopes to put an end to the alarmingly high number of boil water advisories on First Nations reserves, the Parliamentary Budget Office has found.
In a new report released Thursday, the spending watchdog determined that total spending by Ottawa and the provinces since 2011-12 and an additional $1.8-billion in funding announced in the 2016 federal budget only covers 70 per cent of total investment needs.
According to the PBO, the federal government must invest at least $3.2 billion for upgrades between 2010 and 2020 in order to end the boil water advisories and bring water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nations reserves in line with non-First Nations communities.
The Liberal government’s $1.8-billion funding commitment in budget 2016 to improve First Nations water infrastructure is to be rolled out over five years.
Out of the $4.3-billion earmarked by Ottawa for First Nations water and wastewater systems spent or earmarked by INAC before 2020, roughly $2.5 billion will go towards upgrades, according to the PBO.
To make up that 30 per cent funding gap between current budget allocation and the $3.2 billion capital investment projection, Ottawa will have to spend at least $671 billion, under the most conservative out of the analyzed scenarios in the PBO report.
Of that $3.2 billion, $1.2 billion is needed to upgrade existing infrastructure to meet safety protocols as defined by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which is in the process of being split into two new federal departments: Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
According to the PBO report, $2 billion in future capital investments are required to replace expiring water systems and expand capacity to accompany population growth, based on data and cost estimates from a 2011 Neegan Burnside report and demographic information from a 2016 R.V. Anderson Associates study.
On top of new funding need for capital investments, the PBO projects it will cost Ottawa at least $361 million each year to operate and maintain.
Another scenario analyzed by the PBO based on higher population growth projected estimated at total spending on water and wastewater infrastructure since the 2011-12 year would only cover 54 per cent of total investment needs. Under this scenario, the total capital investment needed will rise to $4.7 billion.
Statistics from Health Canada indicate that there were 100 long-term drinking water advisories and 47 long-term warnings in 102 First Nations communities as of the end of October 2017.
In the first Throne Speech, the Trudeau government promised to end boil water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2021, with the large number of active advisories seen as a sore spot for Canada’s global image.
In 2016, international advocacy body Human Rights Watch put out a report concluding Canada had violated its Indigenous Peoples’ right to safe water by not adequately upgrading water systems.
In a statement, NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), who originally asked the PBO to analyze the cost of upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure, said the report from the Parliamentary office “raises many red flags.”
“The Prime Minister made a firm commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories on reserve. It’s clear he hasn’t allocated the funds to keep this promise,” said Mr. Angus, his party’s Indigenous affairs critic.
“In particular, the chronic underfunding of operations and maintenance will cause more long-term problems for existing water and sewage facilities.”
The PBO report also noted that 39 per cent of the 807 water systems servicing 571 First Nations communities across Canada were categorized as “high risk” by INAC and 278 were deemed to be at “medium risk.” Of the 532 inspected wastewater systems, 72 were categorized as high risk and 272 per cent were deemed medium risk. It found that another 153 communities were served solely by septic tanks.
The PBO also found spending on water and wastewater infrastructure dropped during the tenure of the former Harper government. In 2010-11, spending peaked at $377 million, but then dropped to $286 million in 2013-14. It has increased by more than 70 per cent since the Liberals assumed office.
Although water and wastewater services normally fall under provincial jurisdiction and management, responsibility for such services on First Nations reserves falls to INAC. The department provides funding for construction and upgrades and 80 per cent of operating and maintenance costs for infrastructure on First Nations communities.
The Hill Times