Water Infrastructure in the Arctic: Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Social, Natural and Physical Systems


Even when it exists, formal water infrastructure in rural Alaska often fails to provide an adequate level of service to Alaskan households and communities. Operating water infrastructure in the Arctic is particularly difficult due to the unique coupling between the engineered systems and the unusually extreme challenges from social and natural systems. The small and remote nature of communities present unusual logistical, financial, and workforce challenges, while an extreme and changing climate further complicates the technical work needed to operate and maintain the systems. Accordingly, this project integrates knowledge of the water service challenges, data needs, and workforce issues experienced by Arctic communities and develop approaches to address these challenges and needs with appropriate strategies. Results from the needs assessment are used in teaching modules, and the knowledge generated is being used to develop an educational phone and tablet app that can be used as a tool available for utilities in public outreach. Broadly, this project is reducing uncertainty surrounding the operations of Arctic water infrastructure under conditions of climate change, and in doing so identifies new places where research is urgently needed. Knowledge is being returned to participating communities through professional organizations, anchor institutions, and public outreach.

Logistics Summary

This collaborative project between Faust (2022666, U of Texas) and Kaminsky (2022177, UW) aims to develop a needs assessment of the water supply systems in Arctic regions. Interviews with state and regional stakeholders were conducted virtually between January and June 2021. In April 2022, a field team of three traveled to Bethel to conduct semi-structured interviews with people living in Bethel and neighboring communities. During this trip, the team interviewed water-sector stakeholders in the region. A second trip to Bethel and neighboring villages is planned for August 2022. 

Principal Investigators

Co-Principal Investigators

Project Outcomes

Even when it exists, formal water infrastructure in rural Alaska often fails to provide an adequate level of service to Alaska households and communities. The small and remote nature of communities present unusual logistical, financial, and workforce challenges, while an extreme and changing climate further complicates the technical work needed to operate and maintain the system. Accordingly, this project sought knowledge of the water service challenges, data needs, mitigation strategies, and workforce issues experienced by Arctic communities. This research was a partnership between Alaskan communities and organizations, and universities from across the United States. It was a transdisciplinary effort involving engineers, anthropologists, climate scientists, artists, tribal education specialists, and community infrastructure users and operators. This planning grant was designed to forefront Alaskan community member and utility operator knowledge, and to build the trust and capacity needed to enable full co-design in future research undertakings.

A majority of homes in the United States receive household water services via complete in-home plumbing. However, in Alaska many communities remain unserved. Seeking drivers behind this trend, we identified the spatiotemporal variations and the sociodemographic parameters that are correlated with the rates of in-home plumbing in Alaska communities. We found that complete plumbing is correlated to multiple characteristics, including the percentage of households that receive social security and are valued under $150,000. The many rural Alaskan regions revealed to have homes without access indicates a pressing need to invest in not only new water systems but also maintenance, operations, and capital improvements.

To better explore drivers behind unserved communities, we then built a holistic, empirical systems model of the nature of water sector challenges in Alaska. This systems model targeted knowledge of the overall system operations. We identified challenges within the financial, human, natural, and technical systems involved in the provision of water services in rural Alaska. The systems approach allowed us to map interdependencies between these systems. We assessed cascading impacts caused by the arctic environment and by climate change that increase the number of unserved communities and system failures. Unsurprisingly, climate change exacerbates the challenging Arctic operating context, straining the financial and technical systems within water infrastructure.  Communities are only able to pay for repairs using emergency funds that become available after system failures. Accordingly, service disruptions are linked to a lack of operations and maintenance funding.  Further, we found that certification of operators posed a barrier to receiving infrastructure funding. To support certification of operators, this planning grant created a mathematics education app, which is described next. 

Operator mathematics education was identified as a barrier to certification by many respondents interviewed in this research. Math education is critical for both operator certification and water treatment plant operations. In response to this need, this project developed and released H2O Academy, an open access app focusing on increasing basic math problem solving skills needed for the water operator Level 1 competency exam. H2O Academy teaches the math concepts operators need to understand flow, concentrations, and equivalencies. Next, the app takes the user through a water treatment plant schematic. In each part of the water treatment plant, the app helps users develop comfort solving math questions typical to and contextualized by that stage of water treatment. Users are able to request feedback and hints for each problem as desired. Bounded random number generators were built into the app to enable greater opportunities for practice.  At the end of the game, users can choose to take a test that randomly pulls questions from all the mathematics concepts covered in the app in order to receive a certificate of completion.

To enable future work at the sociotechnical interface, this project produced an analysis that implemented and compared three qualitative data analysis techniques to explore the collected semi-structured interview dataset. This methodological contribution described how different qualitative methods differ in their use of induction, in their prevalence in existing construction engineering and management research, and in their ability to answer different types of research questions.  For example, a deductive content analysis allowed for a full characterization and quantification of the dataset and discussion of the results in relation to a predefined framework.  This is relevant to frameworks based on design and construction standards. A hybrid content analysis exposed emergent, detailed insights that compliment deductive frameworks. A constant comparative analysis revealed emergent trends and uncovered the reasons why these trends occur.  In addition to building knowledge relevant to this project's research questions, this methodological effort advanced sociotechnical construction and engineering management research by enabling the discipline to better address the industry's complex challenges.

Finally, this planning grant anonymized and archived data from end-user interviews to catalyze research on topics such as the provision of Arctic water services, arctic engineering, and end user needs.

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
University of Texas at Austin
University of Washington
Other Research Location(s)
Bethel, Alaska
Project Start Date
Sep 2020
Award Year
Funding Track