OPINION: Tech counts, but people are still rural Alaska's greatest asset
Water, power and food are expensive in rural Alaska. No surprise there. Some of the technical challenges in these areas are getting attention, such as in the upcoming conference on Water Innovations for Healthy Arctic Homes in Anchorage this month.
Nonetheless, high costs and technology are only part of the story. Our research team, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has examined how water, power and food systems work and interact in two regions of Alaska and also on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. In a time of scarce state funding and rapid change, we hope our findings can help point beyond a list of challenges, toward positive actions that can help rural people sustain thriving communities. What are we finding? That people, more than anything, are the key to community sustainability.
Treating water and generating electricity take a lot of fuel, machinery and skill. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, can help reduce long-term costs. Modular and open systems, as opposed to complex "black box" solutions, can help make repairs and replacements easier in places where shipping of large equipment and supplies is expensive and restricted to a few months a year.
Most of all, however, training and retaining skilled operators is an essential short-term need. Experienced operators help avoid breakdowns and other expensive problems, but in remote communities it can be difficult to fill positions that require 24/7 attention and draw ire when things go wrong. As mechanical systems have a lot in common, job sharing and cooperation among water plants, power plants and schools may offer one way of attracting and retaining qualified personnel.
Sharing networks and cooperation already help boost food security in Alaska. Government regulations and programs can foster such efforts by recognizing community practices and needs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently changed its rules about what foods are acceptable for senior centers, allowing providers to accept subsistence foods in addition to store-bought foods. Alaska's hunting regulations have increasingly recognized the communal approach taken in Alaska Native villages. And more can be done to recognize the tremendous contributions of "super hunters," individuals who provide food to a large network of households and extended families.
Rural residents are adept at finding and creating opportunities, including using systems in ways different from their original purposes. In rural Alaska, bypass mail reduces shipping costs while also supporting the rural air carriers that connect Alaska communities. Postal rates comparable to those in the Lower 48 mean that Amazon can offer Amazon Prime service to rural Alaska, providing access to goods at competitive prices, a possibility that many rural residents have seized enthusiastically. Without a program like bypass mail, Canada's much higher postage rates to remote communities have led Amazon to cancel this service in Nunavut. It is important to understand how programs like bypass mail affect many aspects of rural life in Alaska, lest we cut a service before realizing how far the consequences will reach.
Climate, environment, economy and society are changing rapidly throughout the North. Much attention is given to climate change. Alaska is warming much faster than the global average, raising problems with erosion, permafrost thaw, wildfire and ecosystem health. But other challenges — keeping schools functioning, providing access to health care, creating a local economy, reducing suicides and addictions — are more likely to keep community leaders awake at night. This is not to say climate change does not matter, but neither should it distract attention from other pressing needs. Dealing with problems piecemeal usually results in piecemeal solutions, some of which may undermine one another. Helping communities address their needs together can lead to more effective long-term results.
And action is indeed needed. Greater coordination can help make sure that sorely needed housing is not held up by inadequate water supply, that renewable electrical generation is shared between major consumers such as the school and the water plant, that a community gets a long-overdue upgrade to its health clinic rather than something it does not need but for which funds happen to be available this year.
We realize many of these observations are not new. But we are frustrated that they continue to be valid. Blanket assumptions such as "rural people are adaptable" or "flexibility is a way of life" can conceal a great deal of harm. Yes, Alaska Native communities could never have persisted without flexibility, innovation and persistence. But that does not make it right to expect them to bear the brunt of budget shortfalls and cutbacks while also bearing the brunt of climate change.
There are many needs in Arctic communities, for infrastructure, economic development, health care and more. But of all the resources available in Alaska, the most consistently under-utilized one is human capacity: the ability of intelligent and hardworking people throughout the state to develop and carry out effective, integrated solutions to the challenges they face.
Rural residents are already doing what they can on their own. If the rest of us want to help, we can start by understanding what changes mean from the local perspective and by supporting those in our rural communities who are already responding and innovating.
Henry P. Huntington is an Arctic researcher from Eagle River. The Sustainable Futures North project (www.sustainablefuturesnorth.org) is led by Dr. Philip Loring of the University of Alaska and University of Saskatchewan. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1262722. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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