It’s 2021. Alaskans video chat with smart phones, pay bills with strokes on a keyboard, turn off lights with virtual assistants and yet remarkably, 3,300 rural households still use five-gallon honey buckets as toilets. While futuristic innovations have become commonplace, thousands of Alaskans are living in homes without running water or proper sanitation. This must change. Those who live in rural Alaska deserve better.
Families in more than 30 communities across Alaska do not have adequate access to safe, modern drinking water and sanitation systems -- and almost 20% of them are operating without these critical services entirely. I learned this in 2019, when I accepted an invitation from the Rasmuson Foundation to travel across Alaska and better understand the needs. I witnessed firsthand the silent public health crisis these 5,000 families were struggling with, and I was moved to do more.
In communities without running water or proper sanitation, disease rates are much higher than elsewhere in the state. For example, those who live in the Bering Strait region experience higher instances of serious diseases, including invasive bacteria, skin infections, respiratory infections and dental disease than other Alaskans. Your address should never dictate your health, but that’s what’s happening here.
To improve the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for residents in rural Alaska, we must focus on addressing critical gaps in infrastructure. Geographic isolation and arctic conditions create barriers to providing and maintaining these necessary services, yet these are manageable. If we invest in appropriate technologies and operational support, we can deliver water to these homes in an affordable and sustainable way.
Indeed, this is a critical yet solvable problem. To help, The Leona M. and Henry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust awarded Engineering Ministries International USA (EMI) a grant of more than $20 million to moderinize water and sewer services in villages where residents’ most basic needs have gone unmet for far too long. The goal of this project is to revitalize operations and best practices at rural water and wastewater utilities and the health and lives of Alaskans who call those communities home. By partnering with local organizations that are already doing work in these villages and knowledgeable about them, EMI will be able to pinpoint how to create the greatest impact so that this grant can drive the long-overdue, positive changes to WASH utilities throughout the state.
This work is in line with our overall mission at the Helmsley Charitable Trust – to build healthy communities, both here and abroad. But we cannot do it alone. There is currently an estimated $900 million to $2 billion revenue gap for programs to address this fundamental issue in Alaska, and funding is currently declining. Many foundations are supporting similar efforts in other countries while the necessity for clean water and accessible sanitation services remains unmet in many U.S. communities.
Too many Alaskans are living in 19th-century homes in a 21st-century world. It is past time to update individual, community and regional water and sanitation services in these areas, and in turn improve health outcomes in rural Alaska.
A lack of water and sanitation infrastructure is not a distant, third-world problem. It is happening right here, in Alaska. It’s one that we know how to fix and doing so should be a priority. No Alaskan should be carrying human waste and dumping it in a sewage lagoon. As a popular former Alaska governor remarked decades ago, it’s time to put honey buckets in a museum. It’s 2021. We must do better. We must do more. And we must do it now.
Walter Panzirer serves as a trustee for The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
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