Alaska editorials: Bush shouldn't slash rural sanitation projects

Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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This editorial appeared in The Anchorage Daily News:

For the second year in a row, President Bush wants to slash funding for drinking water and sanitation projects in rural Alaska by 75 percent. For the second year in a row, Alaskans who have to haul water by hand and slop human waste out of honey buckets are counting on Alaska's congressional delegation to reverse the president's misguided budget cut.

Alaska still has many communities where sanitary conditions are decidedly Third World. Nearly one in four rural households lack running water and sewer service. If their villages have good drainage, some people use outhouses. If they want a toilet inside their homes, they use honey buckets. In villages on wet tundra or boggy permafrost, outhouses don't work and residents have no choice but honey buckets.

Here's a snapshot of what honey bucket life is like.

John Okitkun picks up the full bucket in the bathroom and walks out of the house, past his daughter in the hallway, past the pile of fresh-caught pike on the porch floor and out into the morning. He's careful not to spill.

He's followed by a half-dozen children riding bikes and racing up and down the boardwalk. Okitkun pauses at a red polyethylene Dumpster, one of 23 scattered around the village. He opens the lid and dumps the bucket. The waist-high Dumpster and the boardwalk around it are covered with the residue from a lime and water mixture used to disinfect the area after past spills. The stench of sewage is nearly overwhelming.

That was Kotlik, 1992, in a report by the Daily News. These days, Kotlik is getting an upgraded system with piped service to individual homes. But for residents of villages without running water and sewage, life is much like it was in 1992 in Kotlik.

All that human handling of human sewage is a definite health hazard. In 1990, before the community Dumpsters were installed, Kotlik saw an outbreak of viral meningitis, which is transmitted by contact with human sewage. Eighty people fell sick - nearly a quarter of the village - and 60 had to be evacuated to a regional hospital.

In Yukon-Kuskokwim villages with little or no water service, infants are 11 times more likely to show up in hospitals with pneumonia. In a wider study of Western Alaska villages where less than 80 percent of households had sanitation service, pneumonia and influenza rates were three times as high. Residents also faced double the risk of skin infections. Both findings were recently reported by researchers with the Alaska office of the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Alaska is not relying solely on the feds to end Third World sanitation in the Bush. The state contributes between a quarter and a half of funding for each year's rural sanitation projects.

The federal share reflects a national policy of helping local communities improve sanitation, because the ill effects of pollution spread far and wide throughout the country. The $70 million to $80 million a year the feds spend on water and sewer for rural Alaska villages upholds that federal responsibility. Any significant cut from that funding level does not.

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