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Perspectives on the Alaskan Rural Sanitation Struggle

by Andrew Hund, Humboldt State University, USA

Since, Alaskan Native's changed from a nomadic to a village lifestyle, in the 1940's and 1950's, many of their communities have been without water and sewer facilities. This has resulted in Alaska Native villages having health conditions similar to third-world countries. Overcoming these conditions from the Native point-of-view has been an endless struggle against bureaucratic policies and guidelines. Furthermore, the isolation of rural life has hindered the effectiveness of a village to obtain descent twenty-century living conditions. In this paper, I will be examining the inequality of "sanitation" methods for rural Native communities, living on the Yukon Kuskokwim delta, and their struggle against the State of Alaska's regulatory position.

Current Water & Sewer Conditions in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta

The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta stretches from the village of Eek to Kotlik. This region is located on the western tip of the Alaskan mainland just above the Aleutian chain. The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta is approximately 580 miles southwest of Fairbanks and 470 miles west of Anchorage. More specifically, the delta is between 60-63 degrees latitude and 159-168 degrees longitude. This area is home to approximately 35 to 40 villages and their main method of sanitation is the 'honey bucket.'

A honey bucket is a five-gallon paint can, fitted on the inside with a garbage sack. Upon filling the bucket, with excrement and urine, a family member takes the garbage sack out of the honey bucket and proceeds to the community disposal area usually a community lagoon or a wooden pit in the back yard. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)(August 1995) found that residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region "deposit raw sewage in open pits and bunkers located within residential areas (p. 5)." The EPA (1995) went on to suggest that every year snow melt produces seasonal flooding which in turn moves sewage-contaminated water and plastic bags full of human excrement and urine into the community and surrounding areas (p. 5). Not surprisingly, these unsanitary conditions create many health hazards.

Roy Andrew (1997) an Alaska Native who lives on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, claimed that the children, when playing in the springtime, inadvertently bring the excrement and urine waste home on their shoes and hands as do the family pet(s). The EPA (1995) claimed that residents "carry out subsistence activities such as cleaning and gutting of game and fish in close proximity to exposed human waste (p. 5)." Pathogens in human waste include "salmonella, E. coli, vibrio (the bacteria causing cholera), Poliovirus, Hepatitis A virus, and cryptosporidium" (Environmental Health: Safe Water, Safe Food, & Healthy Communities 1998). The exposure to human waste and the extended family type existence of villagers were the major factors for the outbreak of Hepatitis and Viral Meningitis in the Yukon Kuskokwim region.

Since they have polluted or nearly polluted the water in the delta, with human waste, the Native people have to use other means to obtain drinkable water. The Native people travel to and across the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and retrieve blocks of ice. These ice blocks are set outside and chopped into pieces, then placed into clean 50 gallon garbage cans. The villagers use the melted water in the garbage cans for everything such as cooking, cleaning, bathing, and drinking (Andrew 1997). Since, the water is centrally located in one area it easy to get contaminated by the entrance of one unclean hand or particles in the air.

One Native Communities Struggle

According to Andrew (1997) his village, Kokhanok, has been struggling to obtain water and sewer facilities for fifteen years. However, the Native villages, like Kokhanok, lack voting power and money to influence politicians in Juneau. The only political influence they posses, because of their remoteness and their subsistence lifestyles, is to write and phone state officials. However, this is problematic because the native people, although upset with the water and sewer conditions, do not write to politicians "because of cultural concerns that don't allow natives to protest elders (Andrew 1997)." The native people, in villages, view the state government as the authority figures or their elders. Nevertheless, some do attempt to better the conditions in villages via letter writing and phoning campaigns. This duty is generally taken up by various community and political leaders such as: the Village Council; local hospital officials; Indian Health Services officials; and the Public Health nurse of Kokhanok. (Andrew 1997).

Governor's View on Rural Sanitation

Governor Tony Knowles in a speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention on October 19, 1995 addressed the rural sanitation problem by saying:

As for the honey bucket, let's put it in the museum. I said that last year, and I'm saying it to you again today. By the year 2005, I want the honey buckets to be things of the past. Alaskans in our villages aren't second-class citizens -- and they shouldn't live in Third World conditions. They deserve proper sewage disposal and clean, safe drinking water just like everybody else. We're already off to a good start. I punched through $21 million in the capital budget for rural sanitation this year. When you add federal matching dollars, well [we will] spend almost $40 million in the current budget (Knowles 1995).
A year later, on October 17, 1996, Governor Knowles again addressed the rural sanitation problem to the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention by saying:
More than 40 percent of Alaska[n] Native households do not have safer water hookups in their homes, or they have to use honeybuckets ... This year we fought for and secured $38 million, including $20 million in state funds, for rural water, sewer, and solid waste projects in more than 40 villages. (Knowles 1996)
Last year, Governor Knowles on October 23, 1997 and again addressed the rural sanitation problem once more to the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention by saying:
Right now, 64 percent of Native village households have adequate water and sewer services, in communities from Anaktuvik Pass and Koyuk to Chignik Lagoon and St. Mary's (Knowles 1997).
From these speech excerpts, it would appear that State of Alaska is doing everything it can to eliminate the rural sanitation problem. However, a closer look reveals that little progress has been made since 1995. The state continues to spend approximately $40 million a year but the villages effected remain the same. For example, there was only a four-percent increase in village sanitation between 1996 and 1997. Yet, a little under $80 million was spent on sanitation projects.

So, both the Governor and the rural communities want sanitation -- but what is stopping water and sewer systems from occurring in Native villages? The main problem stopping sanitation is how to implement it, so it is done to benefit both the villages and the State. Not just one side over the other. The Natives are opposed to sanitation because of the regulations and the cost of maintaining the facilities. They feel these regulations are an exclusionary strategy that perpetuates inequality and hinders the natives from obtaining modern water and sewer facilities. The villagers also felt that the expenses of maintaining sanitation facilities are an unnecessary burden. State and federal agencies, on the other hand, perceive the operating costs and the environmental regulations as part of the sanitation package.

State and Federal Regulations -- A Native View

Imposing sanitation and environmental regulations on the rural communities have been counterproductive. Small villages find it hard, if not impossible, to comply with the cornucopia of federal and state regulations. Hence, most communities do not have water or sewer systems. As mentioned before, a main hindrance to obtaining sanitation is the cost involved in maintaining and establishing compliance. The Community Development Subcommittee of the Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation (1996) suggested that frequently these regulations are seen as unfunded mandates "that place unfair and unnecessary burdens on small communities (p. 1)."The Governor's Council also argued these regulations pit the small communities against the state and federal government (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996).

Along with the perceived forced regulations the Native communities experience almost no incentive for discovering, or solving current sanitation problems. Nor do they feel the need for attempting to work toward or meet compliance with "urban" regulations because the regulations are seen as trivial and unnecessary. The Native villagers view these regulations as doing little in the way to resolve local problems or allow for local autonomy. The regulations that do reach the area are seen as short-term solutions or as they put it "Band-Aids." The Native people as a group place much emphasis on solving problems for the long-term not the short-term (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996).

Native villages view regulations as unnecessary because some of them are irrelevant to their communities. For example, having a lead and cooper regulation in a community where the plumbing equipment is plastic. Another example is a regulation requiring a liner on the bottom of a landfill cell but not on the top. Yet, this landfill is located in a heavy precipitation area, which results in the top spilling over frequently. Another poorly conceived regulation requires water testing for pesticides in an area that has no such pesticides (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996). Collectively, these irrelevant regulations lessen rural Native's interest and understanding in other regulations, which ultimately could improve the health of their community.

State and Federal Regulations - Alaskan Governments' Point of View

Regulations are something the State and Federal government finds necessary for them to keep things uniform and standardized. These regulations are the procedures in which people, businesses, and agencies are to operate in a healthy and safe manner. One example of this is the mission statement of the "Village Safe Water," which is to "provide adequate water, sewage, and solid waste facilities to rural residents to fulfill statutory AS 46.07 (ADEC Division of Facility Construction and Operation 1996)." AS 46.07 is the Alaskan Statue in which people, agencies, and businesses are to conduct themselves in order to accomplish a task. In this instances that would be providing rural sanitation. Consequently, the State and Federal government feel these regulations are necessary and the only method of attaining the goal of rural sanitation.

A Compromise Between the State & Village Attitudes

The attitudes of both the State and the Village people need to be addressed for positive solutions to occur. The main idea behind this attitudinal change is to obtain answers to overcoming the problems associated with getting sanitation to rural villages. Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation (1996) suggested the "corporate attitude" of the Alaskan government should change from: "This is your problem, fix it and tell us when it is fixed or we will take you to court or fine you" to a less adversarial one (p. 2). Yet, this corporate temperament demonstrates the commanding attitude the State government has on rural sanitation (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996).

In contrast, Andrew (1997) argued that this corporate attitude was the main reason the "members of his village don't like government interference or regulations." In essence, the Native villagers felt that: "We cannot deal with unfunded mandates and you [the] State and federal governments are nothing but a barrier to the reasonable resolution of our problems (Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation 1996: 2)." Andrew (1997) also felt the regulations and the massive cost of sanitation caused the Native communities to view the urban bureaucrats with contempt.

The Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation (1996) claimed new attitudes are needed to achieve positive results for both the State and the villagers. The Governor's Council (1996) claimed the States' corporate attitude needs to change to: "Thank you for recognizing that we have value to add as you try to resolve the problems that we both think you have (p. 2)." The Governor's Council is hopeful this change in the governments attitude will foster a positive understanding between the two and lessen the current adversarial breakdown that has been occurring for years (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996).

The Governor's Council (1996) also felt the attitude of rural villagers should change to: "Welcome government partners, we are glad for your support and help as we try to fix what we all recognize is wrong (p. 2)." Again the Governor's Council hoped this would foster positive results. Nevertheless, the difference in attitudes personifies the division between the two groups. This division in attitudes helps explain why sanitation projects have not been achieved. Essentially, this attitudinal problem is two groups looking at the same problem but seeing different solutions.


The Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation (1996) came up with several guidelines designed to bring about solutions to rural community's lack of sanitation. The first is a reexamination of regulations and an attempt to produce a jargon free or easily understandable regulation procedural literature. This has been accomplished with publication of "A Plain English Guide to Water and Wastewater Regulations: For Rural Utilities Serving 25-1,500 People" published in September 1998. Second, is to take a 'holistic approach' to the application and development of regulations. The third guideline is to create regulations that are directed at positive results. Next, is community-based planning to bring about "problem identification and prioritization (p. 3)." Fifth, allows for creative solutions to resolve problems. Sixth, examines the regulation waiver process with the emphasis on making it more "user friendly." The last guideline encourages villages to take advantage of waivers when necessary (Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility 1996).

As mentioned earlier the Native village places very little emphasis on regulations. According to Andrew (1997) these guidelines were humorous and the governments attempt to "urbanize the village." Andrew (1997) continued to argue these guidelines and procedures were the main reason "the elders don't listen to the government." In essence, the Native villages only want inexpensive long-term water and sewer facilities and have very little interest in trivial regulations (Andrew 1997). Village and State's View on the Cost of Rural Sanitation

Another point of contention between the two stems around whom is going to finance sanitation for the long term. Governor Knowles said in his speech to the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention on October 19, 1995: "I punched through $21 million in the capital budget for rural sanitation this year. When you add federal matching dollars, well [we will] spend almost $40 million in the current budget (Knowles 1995)." Granted $40 million is a lot of money and has remained approximately the same since 1995. However, there are number of hidden costs and hassles that result from this money. The notion of who is going to pay for sanitation after it is installed is a major obstacle.

When addressing villages specifically the ADEC mission statement is "to improve public health and compliance with environmental laws by upgrading the levels of sanitation facilities in rural communities through financial and technical assistance (ADEC Division of Facility Construction and Operation 1998)." In this statement there is no mention of financing sanitation after the facilities are complete, which is a main point of contention for the Native villagers. Basically, the funds Governor Knowles mentioned in 1995, 1996, and 1997 were strictly project money, which does little in maintaining the facilities once they are in place.

The Governor's Council (1996) claimed that under current Alaskan Statues rural communities are hampered from maintaining the operations of sanitation facilities because of their limited tax capabilities. Specifically, the State of Alaska requires a tax ceiling to cover the costs of the sanitation facilities regardless if voters in the village vote for an increase or not (Problem Regulation and Regulatory Flexibility 1996). In other words, villagers are forced to pay for the sanitation facilities regardless if they can or not.

Andrew (1997) pointed out that most people in villages live a subsistence lifestyle, which are virtually cash free. Projects in the village are done cooperatively and collectively and money is rarely exchanged. There is also a traditional division of labor where the males are hunters/builders and females are the gatherers/child raisers. Another tradition in the villages is that younger hunters always give game to elders first thing after a hunt as a show of respect. This type of communalism is sort of village welfare, but is very honorable among the Native people.

Not suprisingly, Native communities find it impossible to acquire the necessary funds to maintain sanitation facilities because of their lifestyles. The Anchorage Daily News (Sept. 23, 1992), argued that "some cash-strapped communities have trouble paying more than $10 an hour to their water operators which has made it difficult to fill the jobs with anyone who has experience or training (A 5)." As a result, numerous villages cannot operate a sanitation plant properly, which requires an individual to mix chemicals to purify and treat the water and sewer facilities. Failure to do so can result in numerous deaths for the people of a village, which could surpass the current health problems.

Furthermore, when villages do have a tax base for water-treatment plants, their plants are out of compliance with EPA standards. In the Anchorage Daily News Article (Sept. 23, 1992), the EPA found that 140 village water systems had "violated bacteria testing standards (A 5)."

Also, under current Alaska Statues rural communities are prohibited from joining up with other villages to meet environmental regulations (Problem Regulation and Regulatory Flexibility 1996). In other words, villages are stratified and are forced to acquire decent 20th century conditions on their own merit. These hidden costs and stringent statues make sanitation less desirable for Native communities.


The rural sanitation problem is both simple yet very complex. As mentioned in this report there are many things hindering water and sewer projects from happening. There are social, economic, and attitudinal differences that need to be addressed in order for humane twenty-century conditions to exist for rural Alaskan communities. Nonetheless, the primary problem in achieving proper long-term sanitation is the desire to do so. In essence, the State and Federal governments as well as rural communities and fellow Alaskans need to step forward and put an end to these appalling and unsanitary conditions.

Problems with the Research

The main problem with this research is the lack of information. In academia, this problem just does not exist. There are no articles on Alaskan Rural Sanitation in Sociofile, Psylit, Health index, etc. Hence, more qualitative and quantitative information is needed to study the problem. Also, the information used in this article is from online sources and the extent of what is available.

Works Cited

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: Division of Facility Construction and Operation. October 10, 1996. "Village Safe Water," Retrieved October 5, 1997 (

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: Division of Facility Construction and Operation. July 15, 1998. "Village Safe Water," Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. July 15, 1998. "Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation 2005," Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: Environmental Health. September 21,1998. "Safe Water, Safe Food, & Healthy Communities," Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

Andrew, Roy. "Personal Interview at the University of Alaska Anchorage." October 20, 1997.

Governor's Council on Rural Sanitation: Community Division Subcommittee. March 13, 1996. "Problem Regulations and Regulatory Flexibility (Briefing Paper)," Retrieved October 5, 1997 (

Governor Knowles' remarks to the Alaskan Federation of Natives October 23, 1997, Egan Convention Center. [Speech from Tony Knowles' Governor Papers], Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

Hulen, D. 1992. "In A State of Disrepair: Cold Weather, high expense can plague even the best sanitation system in Bush." The Anchorage Daily News, September 23 pp. A5

Remarks by Alaskan Governor Tony Knowles: To Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention October 19, 1995. [Speech from Tony Knowles' Governor Papers], Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

Remarks by Governor Tony Knowles to Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention October 17, 1996. [Speech from Tony Knowles' Governor Papers], Retrieved October 24, 1998 (

State of Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs: Department of Environmental Conservatism. September 1998. "A Plain English Guide to Alaska Drinking Water and Wastewater Regulations: For Rural Utilities Serving 25-1,500 People." Retrieved November 4, 1998 (

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Water Division. 1995. Federal Field Work Groups Report to Congress on Alaska Rural Sanitation. (EPA Report No. 910/R-95-002).

Copyright © by Andrew Hund, 1998