A Lasting Impact on Health: Innovative Project Harnesses Partnerships to Reach Alaska’s Interior

Alaska’s interior is one of the most ruggedly beautiful places in the United States. But for residents in the region’s scattered rural communities, the remote and isolated wilderness also presents challenges to accessing clean water and sanitation.

Built often on permafrost—a layer of earth that remains frozen all year—and with only limited access to distant and expensive plumbing supplies, more than 3,000 homes in rural Alaska have no running water. Residents of many Alaskan Native communities rely on buckets called honey buckets for toilets, creating greater health risks than in those homes with piped water and sewer systems. As COVID-19 began to spread across Alaska in 2020, these conditions made it impossible for many local residents to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines to stay healthy.

“One of the challenges for much of rural Alaska is over 25 percent of homes in our communities don't have running water,” said Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, president and CEO of the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), the largest Tribal health organization in the United States. “Can you imagine how incredibly heartbreaking it was for families in Alaska to know that you can’t do the easiest thing, which is to wash your hands frequently, because you don’t have access to running water?”

An example of the Mini PASS system implemented by CDC Foundation partner agency ANTHC at their headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska. ANTHC partnered with CDC Foundation to install the toilet and hand washing station in more than 100 homes.

Valerie Davidson, president and CEO of CDCF partner agency the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Nick Crawford, an engineer with Lifewater Engineering in Fairbanks, explains the Mini PASS unit created by Lifewater along with CDC Foundation partner ANTHC.

William Tritt, who received a Mini PASS system from CDC Foundation partner agency ANTHC (Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium) washes his hands using the unit at their home in the small community of Stevens, Alaska.

To address the challenge, the CDC Foundation supported ANTHC in developing a unique solution called the Mini Portable Alternative Sanitation System, or Mini PASS. Custom built by local engineers, the system includes a contained and ventilated bucket toilet system that draws unhealthy fumes outside of a household. It also has a sink supplied from a 20-gallon bucket-fed water tank for hand washing. With no pipes or septic tanks required, the Mini PASS units could be transported by boat or airplane and installed in remote communities when and where they were needed most.

Instead of multiple family members who share the same home reusing the same water for washing, the Mini PASS units provided a safe and healthy sanitation option to residents in rural areas.

“[Before] you washed your hands in the same water over and over,” said William Tritt, whose home in Stevens, AK, was one of 11 in the community that received a Mini PASS unit. “But this one here, it’s a lot more convenient.”

As COVID-19 continues to threaten rural communities, the health impact of the project has been profound—an impact made possible by strong and flexible partnerships. Approached by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the early days of the pandemic to help address water access in rural Alaska, the CDC Foundation reached out to ANTHC. Through funds provided to the CDC Foundation by a private donor, ANTHC partnered with two local engineering companies to design the Mini PASS system and a local manufacturing company to build the units.

William Tritt and Cora Simon outside of their home in the small community of Stevens, Alaska.

Signage explains the Mini PASS system implemented by CDC Foundation partner agency ANTHC at their headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska.

Turquoise Sidibe, associate VP of emergency response for the CDC Foundation, meets with Valerie Davidson at ANTHC headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska.

With their deep contacts in Alaska Native communities, ANTHC staff worked with those of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of Tribal communities in Alaska’s interior, to identify the communities most in need, and then worked with leaders in those communities to identify which community members would receive the Mini PASS units. In addition to the 106 units initially provided by the CDC Foundation, outreach to other funders in Alaska attracted funding for 25 more units, further amplifying the overall project impact.

The CDC Foundation has been an incredible partner. They’ve listened to our concerns in the most respectful and proactive way.

“The CDC Foundation has been an incredible partner,” said Davidson. “They’ve listened to our concerns in the most respectful and proactive way, and brought in other partners that allow us to be able to extend this work beyond the original scope.”

Through a generous extension by the private funder and a CDC grant to the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an additional 122 Mini PASS units will soon be installed, bringing the total to 363 Mini PASS units installed through the project. Future designs are also undergoing customizations to improve their performance, like adding carbon monoxide detectors to alert residents to high levels of Co2. In some communities, local residents are incorporating the units into more permanent water and sanitation home improvements as well, ensuring the long-term impact of the Mini PASS project despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.

“Our partners on the ground have been able to do phenomenal work over the past two years,” said Turquoise Sidibe, associate vice president of emergency response at the CDC Foundation. “Without their knowledge and expertise and without the community rallying for this project, it wouldn't have been possible.”

Learn more about our partnerships in Alaska.

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