Water and Social Well-Being in the Northwest Territories
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Water security recognizes human and ecological needs for sustainable access to an adequate quantity and quality of water. However, in northern Canada, many Aboriginal communities are struggling to ensure that current and future generations have access to secure water resources. While reliable drinking water is a key component of water security for humans, it is important to recognize that northern Aboriginal concerns about water security extend far beyond access to potable water. Water is an integral component of northern Aboriginal livelihoods, community, spirituality and culture. The growing impacts that human development activities and climate are having on the water resources on which northern Aboriginal communities depend have brought water security concerns to the forefront in these communities. While there are technical barriers that need to be overcome in order to address these concerns, an equally substantial challenge is that of improving water governance. A key step in improving water governance in northern Canada’s Aboriginal communities is to ensure that Aboriginal water values and interests are better recognized and more clearly incorporated into decision-making processes. While there has been increased recognition of the importance of including Aboriginal values in water-related decision-making and policy processes, limited progress has been made in this regard because of a lack of well-developed methods for identifying the non-economic values of water. This research applies a social well-being lens to investigate the ways water is valued in a northern Aboriginal context. The research emphasizes the importance of integrating the three key dimensions of social well-being – material, relational and subjective – to make more explicit the dimensions of one’s life that are valued in relation to water. Three main objectives guide this research: 1) to understand the current water resource conditions and contextual circumstances impacting local water use and perceptions in the case community; 2) to use a social well-being lens to identify and examine the values that people associate with water resources in the NWT; and 3) to examine how an understanding of these water values may be relevant to policy and decision-making processes in the NWT, particularly in the context of the Northwest Territories Water Strategy and corresponding Action Plan. Research activities occurred in the community of Trout Lake, a small Aboriginal community located in the Dehcho region of the NWT, and involved two primary data collection methods: 1) document and literature review; and 2) semi-structured interviews. In total, 22 documents (primarily from grey literature) pertaining to the water resource conditions and local water perspectives in Trout Lake were gathered. Many peer-reviewed articles were also consulted for conceptual and empirical information. 28 semi-structured interviews were conducted in Trout Lake with community members identified by the Sambaa K’e Dene Band as being knowledgeable about water use in the community. A second set of interviews was conducted in Yellowknife with nine representatives from a diversity of water policy organization and research groups in the NWT. All interviews were transcribed, coded and analyzed for common themes, trends and patterns using qualitative analysis software (NVivo). The community interview results and analysis of water values indicate that Trout Lake community members value water for many diverse and interconnected reasons. These reasons range from the more easily apparent material values of water such as those related to livelihood activities, traditional foods, and drinking water, to less tangible values linked to social and political relationships, and personal values associated with peoples’ own perceptions about the quality of life they are able to achieve. The results suggest that while the people living in Trout Lake consider water to be critically important to their material well-being, they also associate strong relational and subjective values with water that are just as, if not more, important than the material values. The results from the water policy actor interviews provided useful insights into the relevance of the Trout Lake water value information for helping to address specific water governance challenges in the NWT. Poor communication, a lack of common language, conflicting worldviews and a lack of community capacity and organization were identified as some of the most prevalent challenges limiting the degree to which community voices are heard in NWT water-related decisions. The development of a water consultation tool to better account for and improve the articulation of community water values (material, relational and subjective) during consultation processes was identified as the most useful application of the Trout Lake water value information gathered from the community interviews. The research also offers additional conceptual contributions related to the use of the social well-being framework in the context of water valuation and from a northern Aboriginal perspective. The social well-being framework was found to contribute to an improved understanding of non-economic water values in three ways: 1) using a social theory approach to water valuation that is systematic and more holistic; 2) providing a deeper understanding of such values, as well as the connections and relationships among them; and 3) providing insights into how and why people use and think about water based on their values.