Understanding Health Risks from Climate Change in the Northwest Territories and Building Local Capacity for Successful Adaptations

The project, “Understanding Health Risks from Climate Change in the Northwest Territories and Building Local Capacity for Successful Adaptations,” was funded by Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program until March 2022. As part of this project, the Northwest Territories Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) conducted a climate change and health vulnerability assessment informed by extensive engagement with communities and Indigenous Peoples and based on health system needs.

Several localized factors make the Northwest Territories (NWT) more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As highlighted by Canada’s Changing Climate Report (2019), the Northwest Territories is warming at about three times the global rate.  According to the NWT Department of Environment and Natural Resources, several climate impacts are already occurring in the Territories, including permafrost thawing, seasonal temperature variability and thinner ice, increased variation in precipitation, and an increase in extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, and droughts. A significant localized characteristic in the NWT is its demographic makeup, which includes a large Indigenous population who make up just over half of the total population as of 2016. The environmental effects of climate change are disproportionately affecting Northwest Territories’ Indigenous populations, including their traditional hunting and food gathering practices, affecting their food security.

This project was led by the DHSS to build the capacity of their health system and increase knowledge and understanding of the impacts of climate change on the health of people living in the NWT and the NWT health system. This involved undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the health risks posed by climate change in the NWT to develop and implement a Health and Social Services Department Action Plan. The project involved collaboration with Indigenous governments and organizations (IGOs), and used an external consultant organization, Intrinsik, to perform a health impact assessment that looked at climate change as a key determinant of health for communities. As of November 2022, the project is in the implementation stage and the team is working on implementing the recommendations that came out of their Action Plan in order to prioritize forthcoming adaptation planning activities.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

In 2019, the Government of the NWT completed their 2030 NWT Climate Change Strategic Framework, which included a 2019-2023 Action Plan. These documents discussed some of the impacts of climate change that residents were facing, including changing ice conditions, impacts on water quality and quantity, invasive species, and impacts to habitat and wildlife. The NWT embarked on this project to increase the knowledge and understanding of climate change on health and to fulfill the goals of the Action Plan and the goals of the DHSS. Considering Indigenous People make up a large population in NWT, it was especially important to integrate Indigenous perspectives and health equity considerations in climate change work. Furthermore, throughout the project, it was made clear that climate change impacts would have disproportionate impacts on populations at greater risk (e.g. Indigenous People, elderly, isolated people, and people from remote communities) and this made it necessary that these populations were prioritized for adaptation measures.

The Indigenous Health Department was contacted to request perspective and information, and their contribution was helpful in identifying the main climate concerns as the literature in this area was limited. Furthermore, data collection included demographic makeups to identify the percentage of Indigenous Populations in different communities, and looked at the social determinants of health, such as household incomes. As well, since there are many small communities in the NWT and it is a sparsely populated region, it was understood that climate impacts would not be affecting different communities in the same ways. Some of these communities had already received funding from other government agencies to conduct smaller climate change and health vulnerability assessments, which provided some information on climate change impacts at the community scale. Findings from these smaller projects were utilized within data collection for the project.

Identifying Actions

The 2030 NWT Climate Change Strategic Framework provided several action items for addressing climate change and discussed some of the impacts of climate change that residents were facing, including changing ice conditions, impacts on water quality and quantity, invasive species, and impacts to habitat and wildlife. This project was in line with the 2030 Strategic Framework, and with HealthADAPT funding, DHSS hired a climate change coordinator to conduct a climate change and vulnerability adaptation assessment. This assessment was done under the Government of the NWT action plan. The key project activities that were undertaken include working towards the completion of the Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment (CCHVA), as well as working on the DHSS Climate Action Plan. Along with the 2030 Framework, the project involved the use of several guidelines and framework documents, including the Health Canada HealthADAPT workbook and the Ontario Climate Change & Health Toolkit.

While there were initial concerns on the lack of adequate inclusion of traditional knowledge within the CCHVA, DHSS is currently facilitating ongoing engagement with various community representatives to better include this knowledge. The CCHVA will provide a comprehensive assessment of the health risks posed by climate change in the NWT, which will inform into the Action Plan. By completing these documents, DHSS hopes to identify areas of vulnerability, develop timelines for action, as well as recommend adaptation actions that will support NWT in building resilience in its health system and communities.


This project followed an iterative structure and used a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) framework. The first phase of the project involved prioritizing issues and actions. Currently, a monitoring program is in the planning stages to look at the climate change impacts on health and a climate change vulnerability assessment will be completed to understand short, medium, and long-term risks of climate change to human health and wellbeing in the NWT. The project team had access to adequate climate change data, but a limiting factor to the project was inadequate localized data, which didn’t always provide a “full picture” for each participating community. In addition, another limiting factor to the project were complexities of engagement. NWT is full of smaller communities and IGOs tend to be primarily in charge of projects. This presents a complex governance landscape that can make it difficult to navigate climate change work in NWT.

Nonetheless, there are plans underway to work with health officers in each community to share assessments and start dialogue on what specific support is needed from the Government of NWT when it comes to climate change and how to educate health professionals on climate change issues. With the information gathered from the project and following extensive discussion and review from IGOs and the Department, project findings have been translated into the Action Plan and are currently being translated into a communications plan, in order to disseminate the results and act on the recommendations. Many adaptation actions are currently underway because of the project, including wildfire-related knowledge products, such as a standard operating procedure for public health advisories, expanding research on documented climate change and health concerns, and engagement with communities to verify local issues.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The NWT HealthADAPT project integrated a lot of community feedback and localized data by looking at what communities were already doing and building adaptation strategies based on these pre-existing actions. As mentioned, many smaller communities used funding from other government agencies to conduct smaller climate change and health vulnerability assessments, which provided some specific information on localized contexts.  Looking at community-scale climate projects, the project team was able to better identify the main health concerns and vulnerabilities in these communities, which helped clarify how climate change health impacts were being experienced in NWT. They also were able to take advantage of the best practices that were working in different settings and formulated adaptation responses based on identified population vulnerabilities.

There are so many different issues that affect the NWT and, with the range of impacts across communities, a primary challenge was adequately representing all climate change health issues that the population was facing. While the project identified some top concerns, which will help the Government of NWT prioritize certain concerns in the short-term, there is plenty more work to be done to identify medium-term and longer-term impacts and adapt to other climate change issues. There were many lessons learned throughout this project, but there is a need to increase the time spent on reviewing the climate change work being done to properly integrate feedback from IGOs and get the “bigger picture” on the local experiences of climate change impacts in NWT.

Next Steps

This project helped identify the climate issues that are having the most impact in the Northwest Territories and where the NWT government should invest the most resources. Nonetheless, there are huge ranges of issues when it comes to climate change and its impacts on health, and priorities across all regions have not been comprehensively identified. In some areas, it is still unclear what measures are working and what needs to be done.

While the project has identified current adaptation actions, it will be necessary to have a clear plan to support adaptation measures in the future. This will involve developing more robust data on climate change impacts and reported health issues. Within the project, data was provided mostly by talking to people on the ground about which issues were affecting them, as well as speaking to climate experts, but there is a need to collect more standardized localized data to complement this anecdotal data. While there is still more to be learned within the NWT context, there is also a keen interest to begin deploying adaptation strategies while conducting further vulnerability and adaptation assessments. Currently DHSS has outlined a few key next steps. This includes publishing the Climate Change & Health Vulnerability Assessment (CCHVA), completing the DHSS Climate Change Action Plan, establishing a monitoring program, and engaging with NWT communities to prioritize and support adaptation actions. It is also expected that the Climate Change Working Group will continue to hold regular bi-monthly meetings, which will further support the integration of knowledge on the impacts of climate change and human health in the NWT.