Fresh Water Resources
Fresh water is an essential, and threatened, requirement. Throughout the Pacific, smaller islands, and the leeward side of large high islands, experience difficult, and sometimes life threatening, deficiencies of clean, potable water supplies. Development activities, including construction, agriculture and tourism, may elevate water needs to unsustainable levels.
The amount of fresh water is, of course, dependant on rainfall and this varies according to the geographic location of the island and climate conditions. There is normally a “wet season” that replenishes water supplies for the subsequent dry season.
Some islands receive abundant rainfall all year long. Vava’u Tonga, for example, gets as much as 9 metres of rainfall a year. El Nino events can result in a shift of rainfall patterns so countries that normally have abundant rain, such as Tonga Fiji and the Melanesian islands, experience a period of drought.
Agricultural droughts occur throughout the region, and are a particular problem for the atoll nations and the leeward side of larger islands. Vanuatu experienced major droughts in 1978 and 1983, Samoa in 1971 and 1989, and Fiji in 1987, 1992 and 1997. The 1987 Fiji drought was one of the worst in this century, beginning in the 1986 dry season and extending through the 1986/87 wet season.
The El Niño event in 1997/98 brought some of the worst droughts on record in the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, The Marshall Islands, Nauru, PNG, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa. The Marshall Islands received slightly over two inches of rain from January to March 1998, just eight percent of the norm. After more than four months of the El Nino-caused drought, the Marshall Islands government declared the country a disaster area. Desalination plants were sent to Majuro and Ebeye, the two main urban centres while smaller water makers were installed on ships to provide fresh water to the outer islands. From August 1997 to March 1998, the highlands of PNG experienced one of the worst droughts on record, creating a national crisis and the need for an airlift of emergency food and water supplies.
The Pacific Island Countries also face critical water supply and contamination problems because of the inability of governments to maintain ageing water reticulation and treatment systems set up during the colonial period. Periurban settlements have grown substantially in the past decade and are rarely supplied by water in any Pacific island country. The water is not safe to drink – even in the capitals of all but two of the independent Pacific Island Countries. Fiji and Vanuatu filter and chlorinate their water supplies. Tonga, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands try to treat their water but do not always have access to adequate amounts of chlorine and chlorine injection systems fail from poor maintenance. Even where the fresh water source is protected from pollution, tap water from urban systems is seldom safe to drink because of leaky pipes and negative water pressure during times of high use.
Fiji has the largest water system in the Pacific Islands based on an economy of scale, but this is a legacy from when Fiji was a British colony. The system has deteriorated steadily since Fiji became independent and is now a major impediment to future tourism development. Between 1991 and 1995, for example, the amount of water lost through broken pipes, leaks, and clandestine connections increased from 36% to 43% (Johnston 1999). Plans to open a luxurious $US20 million resort fell through when American conglomerates realised there was no easy method of transferring water to the site at Natadola Beach and the government run water department was already overloaded with broken mains and long overdue maintenance.
In Kiribati, severe leaks in the water system cause nearly half of the pumped ground water to flow into the sea and the public water supply was turned on for only two hours per day over a period of several years. Water pollution, requires chlorinating and clarifying drinking water, but treatment systems are difficult to install and to maintain in remote island areas. Even where the fresh water source is protected from pollution, tap water from urban systems is seldom safe to drink because of leaky pipes and negative water pressure during times of high use. Imported bottled water is common in shops throughout the Pacific islands.
A 1983 meeting on water resources development in the South Pacific identified the following major problems throughout the region. These problems persist in 2000 (ESCAP 1983):
In 1992, two thirds of SPREP members recorded problems of supply/storage and groundwater pollution. Papua New Guinea did not at that time register water shortage as a problem, but would need now to register the effects of recent drought. Inefficient use of water and supply leakage is a major concern in Fiji, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, and the Cook Islands. Waste disposal systems (both solid and liquid) are generally inadequate in the Pacific islands and this problem is likely to continue to worsen as populations increase.
Population growth, urbanisation and damage to water catchments as a result of deforestation, agricultural activities and inadequate waste disposal are all likely to have an increasing impact on water supplies throughout the region. Improvements in water resource management will require a coordinated effort across many sectors including: improvements in watershed management; reductions in deforestation rates; raising public awareness of wise water use and management; controls over agricultural activities and improvements in waste disposal, especially sewage disposal facilities.
The lack of National action on fresh water issues is astonishing considering the fact that fresh water is a limiting factor for development of any kind. The Asian Development Bank declared provision of safe fresh water as one of its major priority funding areas, yet of the 14 major ADB programmes in the Pacific only one is explicitly on water – the rebuilding of the water and sanitation system in Tarawa, Kiribati (a US$ 12 million project that has had difficulties getting started).
The ADB, as part of its Government Restructuring programmes in the Pacific islands, generally insists on the governments privatising power and water utilities. They believe that privatisation of water services will improve water delivery because lost water will mean lost profits.
Six Pacific island countries have already privatised their water supplies. Vanuatu, Nauru, Guam, Marshall Islands, and parts of the Federated States of Micronesia. Port Vila’s water services have been privatised since 1994. The Union Electrique du Vanuatu gets funds from consumers and supplies 98% of Port Vila’s population. The amount of unaccounted water dropped from 42% to 26% between 1990 to 1996. Connections increased by 45%. Fiji is in the process of privatising its water services. Water is currently run by the public works department at an estimated cost of about US$12.5 million a year.
SOPAC is the regional body that assists the Pacific islands with water and sanitation issues. Their Water Resources Unit has a staff of highly qualified water engineers and a comprehensive library on water related issues in the region. In 1998, SOPAC had projects assisting with water and sanitation in the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and New Caledonia.
Programmes to mitigate pollution of water supplies seek to improve sanitation, waste disposal, and contamination from agricultural chemicals. There are about US$ 36 million worth of sanitation projects underway in the Pacific sub-region in the 1998-2000 period. These include: