Anne Ford 2017-01-25 00:23:19
Lions help a hamlet doomed by the encroaching sea. The waters are rising in Alaska. As global temperatures rise, sea ice is melting—and the ocean is swelling, shores are eroding, and rivers are bulging. For the river and coastal Alaskan communities most in danger, life has become a bit like battling a slow-motion flood. At least one of those communities, the isolated indigenous village of Newtok, knows all about slow motion. Since 1996, the village has been trying to move to a new site, one that sits safely on bedrock instead of melting permafrost. But lack of funding, plus seemingly endless red tape, has left Newtok largely in limbo. Now the efforts of Alaskan Lions have brought the community one crucial step closer to relocation. How? By supplying access to the one thing you’d think Newtok’s residents would have more than enough of already: water. The well house and deep-well hand pump made possible by Lions provides water for the new village of Mertarvik. The story begins a few years ago when the Fairbanks Host Lions Club, at the suggestion of member Yvonne Temple, a Philippines native, carried out several projects designed to bring safe drinking water to remote areas of the Philippines. As the president of CampWater Industries, a company that builds water-treatment systems all over the world, Jon Dufendach worked with the Fairbanks Host Lions on its Philippines efforts. “The Lions were just delighted with the results,” he says. “But then they asked if I had thoughts about a similar project to do here in Alaska. And I presented the needs of Newtok to them, because that village is rapidly washing away.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Newtok, a community of about 350 residents (primarily members of the indigenous Yupik people), sits just 10 feet above sea level on the Ninglick River in western Alaska. Each year, Newtok loses between 75 and 150 feet of shoreline to erosion. It’s estimated that within two years, the community’s school, which sits dangerously close to the river, will be lost to its waters. The danger has been apparent for a long time—at least 21 years. That’s when the residents of Newtok voted to move their community to a site about nine miles away, which they named Mertarvik. Not only is Mertarvik located on volcanic bedrock instead of the permafrost on which Newtok sits, but it also rests at a much higher elevation than Newtok does. In addition, Mertarvik is still close enough to the Yupiks’ hunting grounds to make their traditional subsistence lifestyle possible. Sounds simple enough. But the logistics of moving an entire village, even one as small as Newtok, have proven immensely challenging. For one thing, before the structures necessary for people to live in Mertarvik can be implemented, the community must meet certain frustrating requirements. To wit: until 25 families live in Mertarvik, neither a school nor a post office can be built—but who’s going to move to a town where their children can’t learn and no one can get mail service? For another thing, the state of Alaska is facing a $3 billion budget deficit, making it more difficult than ever to obtain government funding. Then, too, “because Newtok has voted to move to the new location, federal and state agencies won’t put any resources into keeping its current location functional,” says Larry Helgeson, a member of the Anchorage Benton Bay Athletic Lions Club who is familiar with Newtok’s plight. “So they can’t get new stuff built at the new site because it’s not big enough yet, and they can’t get stuff fixed at the old site because the plan is to move it before it erodes away. They’re really caught in a Catch-22.” But as implacable as that Catch-22 seemed, there was a way for Lions to begin to break it. One thing Mertarvik needed before anyone could live there was potable water. And in fact, as Dufendach explained to the Fairbanks Host Lions, in 2007 the state of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation had drilled a 106-foot well there and installed an electric pump. But because Mertarvik has no electricity, there was no way for people to actually get water out of the well. Instead, the few people who had moved there had to travel several miles to a spring for fresh water. Michael Lukinov (from left), Thomas John and Dave Shippey build the deep-well hand pump in Mertavik. Dufendach suggested that the Lions raise funds to build a deep-well hand pump, so that the well would be usable without the trouble of a generator. Dufendach would donate his time and labor, but the cost of purchasing and flying in the necessary materials (there are no roads to Mertarvik) would be considerable: $30,000. That didn’t faze John “Benny” Benevento, a Fairbanks Host Lion. “We said, ‘Gee, we did it in the Philippines; why can’t we do it here?’” he remembers. “We just wanted to get it done, darn it.” His wife Sally, also a Fairbanks Host Lion, chimes in. “Some people said, ‘Wait, there’s a lot of government agencies out there that should be able to do this. Why can’t HUD do it? Why can’t this other agency do it?’” she says. “It was so easy to say, ‘Somebody else needs to do this.’ But it’s our job.” That said, it was too big a job for the Fairbanks Host Lions to accomplish by themselves. Instead, they enlisted the help of the District 49 A and 49 B foundations, each of which raised roughly half of the funds needed. In June 2016, Dufendach and carpenter Mikhail Lukinov traveled to Mertarvik, where they spent a week installing the hand pump, building a well house and testing the water for safety. The work required a bit of improvising. For example, without any timbers available for the well house foundation, the pair had to make use of some old railroad ties they found instead. But in the end, they got the job done. And the people of Newtok/ Mertarvik appreciate it. “We are very thankful for that well water, and we thank the Lions very much,” says Newtok tribal administrator Tom John. It’s not just that having a useable well makes life easier for anyone living in Mertarvik (though it certainly does). Having potable water on site, John says, will make it easier to increase the population of Mertarvik. Once that population reaches a certain level, the community will be eligible for funding from FEMA and other agencies. In other words, the Lions of Districts 49 A and 49 B haven’t just gotten water out of the ground. They’ve helped a community in dire need take another crucial step towards saving itself. “It was wonderful coordination between two districts that are very competitive in their own way, but in this way, they were absolutely a team,” says Benny Benevento. “It wasn’t ‘us and them.’ It was just ‘us.’ Everybody came together. I’m going to get teary thinking about it.” But the work isn’t over. “In the process of doing this, we found out that there are something like 30 more villages in the state of Alaska without water,” he adds. “So we’re going to adopt another village somewhere and get them going. We’re going to get water to everybody and keep working till we get it done.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Saving+An+Alaskan+Village/2695294/379188/article.html.