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Remote Alaskan Villages Get Indoor Plumbing


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Sixteen remote communities in Alaska, mostly native villages, will be getting sanitation facilities for the first time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week announced about $29 million in grants to bring running water and flush toilets to those villages. The money will be distributed through the state, and the Alaska Native Tribal health Consortium and Matt Dixon will be overseeing the program. He joins me to talk about it. Welcome.

MATT DIXON: Thank you.

BLOCK: And, Matt, why don't you describe the villages where you're going to be doing this work? What are they like?

DIXON: You know, if you're not from Alaska, they're really hard to describe. Alaskan villages are very, very remote. There's no road access, and most are located either on the coast or on a river. So during the summer months, you can get there via boat or barge if you want to move heavy equipment in. But in general, you're going to fly to these communities. Some of them as far as three to 400 miles from what most of us would consider a metropolitan area, and they vary in size, anywhere from about 100 people to about 1,200 folks.

BLOCK: Now, why don't you explain what the system is now in these villages for water and for sanitation?

DIXON: In general, those communities that do not have I would call regular sanitation, they don't get to get up in the morning and walk right down the hall and have water available. In the winter months, they're actually cutting ice from lakes and rivers and melting it and bringing it into the home. During the summer months, predominantly, they're either collecting it out of springs, rivers, or they collect it off of their roofs into barrels and drink that water there. Now, on the sanitary side, we're using what are called honey buckets, and they're anything but honey buckets.

It's a five-gallon bucket that people use as a commode. And the big disadvantage there is that waste then has to be hauled out by hand from the house through the village to a lagoon. So the chances for disease transmission because of that is much, much greater. You don't get that magic little silver handle that sends it all away. You actually have to carry it out of your house and through the community.

BLOCK: What are the health issues that you're dealing with in these communities?

DIXON: Well, you know, we've known for a long time that gastroenteric diseases are much, much higher in communities where safe water is not available. But recently, we've discovered that it's not just the gastroenteric diseases that are a problem, but it's respiratory and skin diseases that also skyrocket when communities do not have running water and sewer. I think most of us here whenever there's a flu epidemic, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. And in the community where you don't have water, that becomes very difficult. And so what we're seeing is that actual hospitalizations are much, much higher in communities without water and sewer.

BLOCK: What are you going to be building with this grant money in these Alaskan villages?

DIXON: Well, we can't just go in and serve an individual home. We actually have to provide the backbone of the sanitation infrastructure. So what that involves is some sort of water source, a well, a river, a lake. We have to treat that water in a water treatment plant, and we have to have a central facility to treat and dispose of the waste. That's the basic infrastructure, and then we provide pipes to get water to the homes and sewer pipes to get water away from the homes. So once all that basic infrastructure is developed in, we can actually go into the house, provide plumbing so that the folks can actually have that running water in their homes.

BLOCK: Now, what's the timeframe for this? When is the project going to be done?

DIXON: These projects that were recently funded, the money will be available within the next month. We have a very short season to work in in Alaska, but we'll begin building and doing construction work this summer, probably work through next summer. So we're hopeful by the end of 2014, early 2015, folks will actually be turning water on in their homes.

BLOCK: Well, Matt Dixon with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, thanks so much for talking to us.

DIXON: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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