A mission – first to the Pacific by the UN Special Rapporteur on safe drinking water since the post was established in 2008 – has cast light on the precarious nature of fresh water supply in Kiribati.
Report – By Harry Pearl
A United Nations official has hit out at what she sees as a lack of vision and strategy from the Kiribati government on a “desperate” water and sanitation problem.
Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, called on Kiribati to implement a coherent strategy.
Replying to questions from Pacific Scoop, de Albuquerque said: “I observed that none of the government institutions seemed to have a specific responsibility for sanitation and hygiene promotion.
“The first step to translate the strategy into action is to explicitly assign competences over sanitation to a government department and provide it with the necessary human and financial resources,” she said.
Despite requests for an interview, no member of Kiribati’s government could be reached for comment.
During her visit to the region in July, de Albuquerque met with representatives from the government of Kiribati and Tuvalu, members of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Secretariat of the Pacific Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC), as well as a host of development agencies.
First water mission
The mission, the first to the Pacific by the UN Special Rapporteur on safe drinking water and sanitation since the post was established in 2008, has cast light on the precarious nature of fresh water supply in Kiribati.
Although de Albuquerque identified weak governance as a major hindrance to adequate water supply and sanitation, it is not the only issue confronting the low-lying atoll nation.
Climate change, unsustainable urban development, prohibitive costs and a fragile, overdrawn fresh water supply are all major obstacles to adequate drinking water and sanitation, say Pacific development agencies and foreign aid donors.
According to a spokeswoman from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), which has been providing aid to Kiribati since the country became independent in 1979, the government of Kiribati is struggling to meet the current water and sanitation needs.
There is “concern that it will be unable to meet the future needs…”
“Lack of adequate sanitation is contributing to pollution of the water table and public health concerns, particularly in the poorest and most crowded areas,” she said.
Kiribati is struggling with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the Pacific, recorded at 52 deaths per 1000 live births, according to World Health Organisation figures in 2010.
Along with perinatal conditions and pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases – caused by inadequate water supply, poor public hygiene and unsafe drinking water – are the major drivers of infant mortality.
In South Tarawa, Kiribati’s densely populated capital, the situation is even grimmer.
In December last year, a comprehensive report written by New Zealand consultants Fraser Thomas Partners, in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank and the Kiribati government, said that in 2010 almost one person in four in South Tarawa was affected by diarrhoea or dysentery and needed to visit a health clinic.
The report, titled Tarawa Water and Sanitation Roadmap 2011 to 2030, said:
“All natural water sources are either polluted or at risk of pollution which will deny their use as safe water supplies.
“The population is growing rapidly and largely unchecked and will more than double in the next 20 years.”
Leaking septic tanks, open defecation, poor hygiene education and a lack of toilets are all contributing to the pollution of water supplies.
Forty-eight percent of Kiribati’s population – 52,402 people – lives in South Tarawa.
Long-term population growth is projected to increase at 3.87 percent a year to 2030, and at current estimates the population of the town is likely to reach 107,719 in the next two decades.
In Betio, one of South Tarawa’s main urban areas, population density is already at 19,000 people a sq km.
Mike Walsh, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Kiribati, said when discussing water and sanitation issues in Kiribati, this means Tarawa.
“Overcrowding is a huge issue here. Being a low-lying coral atoll they don’t have huge water lenses.”
Kiribati’s groundwater lenses, which are generally less than 2m deep, are the islands’ major source of fresh water, but rainwater, imported water and desalination are all relied on.
At present, South Tarawa’s main water reserve, the Bonriki fresh water lens, is estimated to be about 20 percent overdrawn.
And like most other low-lying atoll countries, it is affected by sea level rise, increased saltwater intrusion into the shallow groundwater supplies is already occurring.
Low saline levels are crucial not just for safe drinking water but for a functioning sewerage system, as septic tanks and irrigation fields will not operate with water of a high saline content.
Currently sewerage systems in South Tarawa are overburdened and in a state of disrepair. It is clear dealing with saltwater penetration is just one aspect of any future sanitation strategy.
Kamal Khatri, water services coordinator at SOPAC, said his organisation had recently been trying to promote the concept of composting toilets.
But looking at basic hygiene practices and behaviour changes in the communities was a first step.
“Hygiene and sanitation has been big taboo for Kiribati for many years. So it is very difficult to promote sustainable technologies,” he said.
De Albuquerque said it was important not to just concentrate efforts on a single solution but to diversify in order to meet water scarcity and sanitation challenges.
“This will contribute to both affordability and sustainability.”
Although the government’s National Water Resources Policy of 2008 and the National Sanitation Policy of 2010 set out about 40 short to medium-term priority issues to be addressed in the next decade, de Albuquerque believes they are over-ambitious, unfocused and lacking in national ownership.
“I observed that the priority setting did not thoroughly come from the government and other national actors who in the end will need to implement all these priority issues,” she said.
“The government did not seem to have taken concerted actions to come up with concrete plans and activities to implement all these priorities.”
However, it is clear Kiribati will need the assistance of the international community to tackle the current situation.
The Tarawa Water and Sanitation Roadmap 2011 to 2030 estimated investment of almost $21 million was needed for water supply improvements and $45 million for sanitation infrastructure over the next 20 years.
In May, the Asian Development Bank and the Australian government signed grant and loan agreements totaling $21.5 million for the South Tarawa Sanitation Improvement Sector Project.
NZAID investment in water and sanitation is estimated to be $11 million over the next three years, according to MFAT.
Not taking into account existing loans, this leaves a shortfall of nearly $34 million.
Khatri said a lot of funding had gone into the water sector in Kiribati over the years, but believes the government could still be doing more.
“I think one of the key challenges is on governance issues, trying to see whether all the government ministers are pooling their resources together, and really getting the high-level buy in from the government to consider this more seriously,” he said.
De Albuquerque said from a human rights standpoint, it was the obligation of the government to respect and fulfill its peoples’ rights to water and sanitation.
“Pacific Island states have limited capacities to tackle the current situation without support from the international community,” she said.
Harry Pearl is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.