Cleaning up - combating pollution in the Pacific

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Modern development and population growth have generated severe pollution problems in some Pacific Island nations. On such small land masses, the solutions have to be novel and pragmatic.

Reporting from John Mitchell (New Zealand), Ricardo Morris (Fiji) and Rachel Reeves (Cook Islands).

Rarotonga is surrounded by a lagoon, which extends to a reef before sloping away to the deeper waters of the Pacific Ocean. It is home to some 13,000 people out of the Cooks’ total population of approximately 18,000.

It is a playground for holidaymakers seeking an idyllic tropical paradise. That’s seen tourist operations pop up all over the island.

That is why some locals, such as Mike Tavioni, a carver, artist and canoe builder, see tourism development as the cause of the island’s pollution problems.

He recalls fishing off Muri Beach on the southeast of the island, long before resort hotels and beachfront homes began to spring up on the shoreline.

Once a pristine stretch of sand, Muri Beach is now smelly and polluted, and development is the cause of the problem, Tavioni says.

“You go to Muri Beach when it is low tide and you scrape the sand where the water meets it. It’s black and it stinks. Everybody is blaming the [farmers who keep their] pigs next to the river inland, but we had the pigs inland for 100 years.

“They are diverting people’s attention from the real cause. What do we get from tourism? Foreign businesses get money and we get a sick beach.

“It didn’t used to be like that.”

There are a number of reasons why Rarotonga – like almost every populated island nation on the Pacific – is wrestling with the issue of pollution.

At the core of all these reasons is people. Pollution is a people problem. Tourism is only one symptom of modern development and growth that have outpaced waste and water infrastructure and traditional patterns of living.

Collaborative approaches between aid, development and environmental science agencies are addressing pollution problems affecting all Pacific Island nations by giving people the tools and expertise they need to find workable, long-term solutions.

Nowhere to hide

While the developed world worries about large scale, but still largely unseen, pollution issues, Pacific Island nations are dealing with the everyday realities of pollution.

In New Zealand we are accustomed to turning on a tap to get clean water. Sanitation infrastructure takes care of wastewater. Our rubbish is collected and disposed of. Our large land area and geographic make-up means we have access to regular sources of water and places where we can store it.

Most Pacific Island countries, however, do not have these natural advantages. Together with a lack of economic grunt to invest in infrastructure, limited local expert knowledge and, in some cases, exploding population growth, the need for workable solutions to the problems is now desperate.

The combination of pollution factors unique to each island means solutions have to be highly tailored and tackled project by project. But, where solutions are being found to work, they are being copied and adapted throughout the region.

NIWA regional manager and marine and freshwater biologist Dr Julie Hall says the ultimate success of projects and initiatives to combat pollution throughout the Pacific relies on empowering island populations to better manage the problems themselves.

“It’s not enough to give them equipment, show them how to use it and then leave them to it.

“The key to making real change is to upskill the people, to build their knowledge and understanding. That’s quite an iterative process, and one that takes time.”

Dr Hall has first-hand experience of the pollution challenges facing the Pacific as a result of her work on Kiribati. She says that, while some pollution issues are out of the control of Pacific nations, others are theirs alone.

“Part of what we’re working on is behavioural change. For instance, one of the major problems in Kiribati is patterns of open defecation on the beaches.

“Even though there are, in some cases, public facilities available, many prefer to do it that way because it’s what they’ve always done. It’s a behaviour we’re trying to change by showing them how much of an impact it’s having on water quality.”

For people that depend on the sea as a food source, as well as for swimming and bathing, a clean marine environment is critical.

Something in the water

The integrity of water, both on the land and offshore, is critical to the island way of life.

Increasingly limited freshwater resources in low-lying islands in particular are under extreme pressure from population growth and poor management, as well as rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change resulting in unpredictable rainfall patterns.

The incidence of diarrhoeal diseases is high, due to poor hygiene, lack of adequate sanitation treatment systems and high levels of poor quality drinking water.

Agriculture is also having a major impact, with animal waste, fertiliser and pesticide runoff making its way into freshwater supplies and coastal waters.

In Kiribati, getting a handle on the size and scope of the problem of water quality was the top priority, says Dr Hall.

NIWA is leading a two-year project to establish baseline water quality reporting in the republic, which has resulted in a colour-coded report card aimed at providing key information to inform and prioritise water- and sanitation-related infrastructure investment decisions.

The baseline data are being used to evaluate the longer-term impacts and effectiveness of water and sanitation infrastructure interventions in dealing with water quality risks and marine ecosystem health.

The data provide information for public health warnings and advisories. The information also feeds into decisions about management of sustainable food sources such as shellfish and other natural marine resources that the subsistence economy of Kiribati depends on.

In Fiji, NIWA has led two projects installing pragmatic water supply and waste treatment solutions to protect public health and reduce contamination of coastal waters.

The four-year ‘Wai Votua’ project led by NIWA’s Dr Chris Tanner, Principal Scientist – Aquatic Pollution, was launched under the New Zealand Aid Partnerships Fund Programme.

Emerging from this effort, a second project – ‘Koro WASH’ – was started in 2013 in two other villages. It involves development and testing of smaller scale individual household systems.

Both projects seek sustainable, practical, local solutions to the treatment and disposal of wastewater, as well as the development of water supply and sanitation infrastructure.

The Wai Votua project was focused on Votua, a coastal village of around 300 people on the Coral Coast of the main island of Viti Levu. The villagers lived with untreated wastewater discharges.

In Votua, the wastewater flowing from the village’s 57 households (now 65) caused the area to become boggy and smelly, and affected the villagers’ health. It also had an impact on the creek that meets the sea beside the village, and on the coral reefs beyond.

Since the water supply and wetlands treatment system was commissioned in October 2010 by NIWA, there has been a notable drop in skin diseases and waterborne illnesses, and the ground around the houses is no longer soggy.

A chief at Votua, Emosi Buravatu, says in the early days villagers had to make do with bathing and washing in the river and using pit toilets along the beachfront. The river mouth, which tests later found to be highly contaminated from the pigpens situated there, also served as a popular play area for children. Houses had no in-house water and women had to cart water for drinking and would wash in the creek.

A water supply and wastewater treatment system, designed in conjunction with Andrew Dakers of Christchurch-based company ecoEng, was installed throughout the village. The system comprises separate treatment of toilet wastewater (referred to as black water) and grey water (from washing, bathing and cooking). Pigpens were also moved away from the village and water systems.

The village water is supplied from a dam in the mountains above the village. Water is passed through a new intake filter and settling tanks, and pumped into a new reticulation system in the village. This feeds into a mains water supply supplemented by rainwater collection. To design an appropriate water and wastewater system, water meters were initially used to monitor usage as well as the consequent black and grey water generation.

The new wastewater system treats black water in septic tanks followed by a planted wetland treatment system built in a valley behind the village, while grey water is treated using coconut husks as a pre-filter, followed by soil and sand filtration.

Each house has a septic tank that is connected to pipes that take the overflows to a centralised pumping station. From the pumping station, effluents are transferred up to a wetland constructed behind the village, where it goes through a filtering process through sand and gravel vegetated with wetland plants before the treated water is used to nourish village gardens.

Viliame Jeke, who was the community consultant leading the implementation of the system, says it is imperative that any water supply system built in villages must also consider what to do with the resulting wastewater.

“Water coming in is as important as the water going out – we have to treat that. Otherwise we are just bringing sicknesses into the village because we don’t know where they are putting their wastewater, which is far more dangerous than bringing water in,” says Mr Jeke.

In Namaqumaqua and Bavu villages, a few kilometres east and west either side of Votua, NIWA’s second project is trialling several different designs for sewage treatment systems for individual households.

The treatment systems, involving septic tanks and land application, were installed at Namaqumaqua in 2013. Mr Jeke says they are much more cost-effective and easier to maintain than Votua’s more elaborate system.

Ana Lagorei, 48, who works at the nearby resort, says since her sewage treatment system was built in 2014, her family’s quality of life has greatly improved.

“With the old system, it would smell and the tank was becoming full. But now we are happy because things have improved. There is no more smell and it is healthier now,” says Ms Lagorei, who lives in the house with her husband, two sons and mother-in-law.

“Sometimes I would be confronted with the smell when I came back tired from work, but now I don’t. It’s a blessing to us. Other generations coming after us will still be able to use this system,” she says.

The septic tank system installed at Ms Lagorei’s home includes a large dual-chamber tank, and a concrete-covered filtration trench that uses sand and coconut leaves. The treated water then goes into a vegetable gardening area.

The Coral Coast lies in Fiji’s typically dry western region where water scarcity in rural areas is often a challenge, so water-less Koro-VIP (ventilated improved pit) toilet systems are also being trialled to eliminate water from the process. As well as not requiring a water supply to operate them, they are much simpler and cheaper for villagers to build.

Dr Tanner says the focus of the project was to work alongside the villagers to find solutions that were effective and practicable.

To be successful, the solution had to be financially viable in a village context, as well as easily manageable. A small-scale solution was developed, integrating infrastructure upgrades with the creation of a wetlands wastewater treatment system.

Villagers are able to use tap water, rather than contaminated water from a nearby creek that was used for everything from drinking and cooking to bathing and sewage disposal.

“Having a proper water supply was a big thing for the people,” says Dr Tanner. “The looks on their faces when the water came from their new showers were incredible. They didn’t have to bathe in contaminated water, there was no more discharge or smell, and the potential for disease was greatly reduced. It was a big improvement.”

The updated reticulation and treatment system has had a major impact, particularly on the health of the villagers.

“Villagers reported a big drop in the incidence of diarrhoea and other illnesses associated with waterborne pathogens,” Chris Tanner says.

Makereta Nagauna, 26, of Votua says the changes in the village since the system was commissioned have been dramatic.

“Before they completed this project, especially for children, there would be a lot of skin diseases, but now it has dropped,” says Ms Nagauna.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. While completing her university environmental science course, Ms Nagauna decided to survey the impacts on village health and that of the creek and lagoon after the wetlands project was commissioned.

“I interviewed the village nurses and they showed me their diaries – things have really improved compared to the past,” Ms Nagauna said.

She added that the well-being of the village in general had improved, with the burden on housewives lightened because of the direct access to clean water in their homes. As well, the marine life in the lagoon has returned.

Ms Nagauna took water samples and compared them with baseline data from the creek and lagoon, and noticed huge improvements in water quality and marine life, which villagers depend on for food and income.

According to Dr Tanner, the NIWA project showed that a simple, elegant, science-based solution tailored to the needs of villagers could get results, especially when designed and delivered in conjunction with the locals themselves.

“It’s a village-scale solution that the villagers themselves can manage,” says Dr Tanner.

“That’s the really important thing; that it can be shared and adapted elsewhere, with practical guidelines also being developed to aid uptake to other villages.”

Mr Jeke showed Water and Atmosphere his latest pride and joy: a dual-chamber ventilated pit latrine where small additions of soil or mulch are used to quicken the decomposition process of the faecal solids and eliminate odours.

“I’ve seen compost toilets in Fiji but not a Koro-VIP latrine version with chambers like this one,” says Mr Jeke of the toilet installed at Namaqumaqua villager Semi Naqiolevu’s place.

“Because of the scarcity of water, this pilot of the improved pit latrine is much cheaper to implement than a septic tank system.” Mr Jeke says one chamber will probably take eight years to fill up, before it becomes necessary to use the other chamber.

Naqiolevu, 54, is as proud of the neat corrugated iron and concrete structure, which almost looks like a tiny church, complete with a washbasin fashioned out of a giant clamshell in the small porch at the entrance.

Mr Naqiolevu beams as he describes how happy he and his wife are that they finally have a proper, odour-free toilet facility.

The team working on these projects includes Dr Rebecca Stott, a NIWA environmental health scientist, and Dr Ann Winstanley, a social scientist from New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research, who assisted with health and hygiene monitoring, and capacity-building with the villages. Making the connection between the health of their families and the state of their water and wastewater systems was the key to engaging women’s involvement in the project. Communication and active engagement by local villagers were also significantly aided, and the outreach of the projects extended, by building on local knowledge, networks and input from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, the non-governmental organisation Rustic Pathways and Viliame Jeke.

Blue lagoons

The Cook Islands comprise five major islands spread over more than 2,200,000 square kilometres of ocean, divided into two distinct groups: the Southern Cook Islands and the Northern Cook Islands of coral atolls.

Rarotonga is the Cooks’ most populous island and is surrounded by a lagoon bordered by a coral reef.

The lagoon is central to life in Rarotonga. But the infilling of swamps and clearing of foreshore vegetation to build hotels, a history of poor sewage management and the runoff of chemicals used in modern agriculture have taken a toll on its health.

To better understand the problem, the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) is supporting an $18 million waste and sanitation project through an agreement to provide water quality testing services over the next four years.

MMR Secretary Ben Ponia says NIWA has played a key role in developing the capacity for lagoon monitoring.

“The involvement of NIWA began with an institutional strengthening project that trained staff in analysing key water quality data and establishing a water quality testing laboratory.”

The new agreement with Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI) to conduct groundwater, stream, and lagoon water quality testing in association with the Sanitation Upgrade Programme (SUP) was signed in December.

The SUP is aimed at delivering improved infrastructure, services, systems, regulation, monitoring and awareness of sanitation and waste management. The project is funded by the Cook Islands Government, the New Zealand Aid Programme, and the European Union.

It follows on from a $3 million waste management initiative from 2011 to June 2014, which resulted in the upgrade of sanitation systems in about 220 homes on Rarotonga’s southern coastline.

According to WATSAN (ICI’s water, waste and sanitation unit), residential sources make up 45 per cent of lagoon pollution on Rarotonga. Another 35 per cent is attributed to commercial properties.

Assistance provided by NIWA and the Global Climate Change Alliance: Pacific Small Island States (GCCA: PSIS) project has enabled the MMR to build the capacity needed to provide water quality testing services.

Developing robust water quality datasets against which future changes can be tracked, through ongoing and improved water quality monitoring, is one of the key outcomes of the SUP project.

Ponia says past support from NIWA helped the MMR set up a programme to collect baseline water quality data in the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Manihiki.

“Having a baseline set of data provides a reference point to compare changes in water quality over time. NIWA expertise was useful in establishing standards to assess what levels could be considered good or poor quality.

“The natural nutrient recycling processes and tropical versus temperate environment mean each location is affected differently by nutrients. For example, in some systems the level of nitrogen may limit the growth of algae in the lagoon, and in other systems it may be phosphate that is the limiting nutrient, which you have to monitor carefully.”

Initially the NIWA laboratory was used to test samples that couldn’t be processed at the MMR’s makeshift chemistry and microbiology lab.

Former MMR Secretary Ian Bertram, now with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), says reports in 2004 of an irritant syndrome in the Titikaveka lagoon sparked the MMR’s engagement with NIWA.

“Swimmers were reporting sore eyes, rashes, and other symptoms from this one area of the lagoon. We thought it was caused by a harmful algae bloom, but this was never confirmed. There was a lot of speculation in the media about the cause – it could have been soil that was dumped around the nearby college, introduced plants, pollen, all of that. I’d heard of these kind of symptoms being reported in Hawaii and Sydney, but there was little evidence produced on what had caused it.”

At the time, the MMR had begun water quality testing for the pearl farming industry in the northern group islands of Manihiki and Penrhyn.

“When the irritant syndrome was reported, we brought equipment from Penrhyn to start researching the cause. At the same time, we needed to learn how to carry out the sampling and testing ourselves. That’s when we got in touch with SOPAC [South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission] and they put us in touch with NIWA. New Zealand was close enough for us to send samples across, and NIWA brought in equipment and staff to help train us and set up an office as
a lab.”

Ponia says the MMR has come a long way over the past decade.

“We are practically self-sufficient in our water quality monitoring programmes and our ability to conduct testing. We currently use a spectrophotometer for testing, and we are looking at acquiring a nutrient analyser, which will allow faster testing and greatly expand our capacity to monitor sites, and to do so more regularly. Ultimately we will also require a purpose-built laboratory to carry out these tests.

“While we now have the skills and the capacity, the physical infrastructure of the laboratory limits our ability to meet international standards for accreditation. Because it is not sterile, this risks samples being contaminated.”

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NIWA scientist Julie Hall with two Kiribati government Environmental Health officers sampling ocean side water at Tangaru Hospital, South Tarawa. [Dave Allen, NIWA]

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Fisheries assistant Tamaliti Tamuela with NIWA's Julie Hall and Rateiti Vaialie collect koumara shellfish from Bonriki lagoon for testing. [Dave Allen, NIWA]

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NIWA's Dr Chris Tanner and the team investigate potential sites for a new household wastewater management system to be installed in Namaqumaqua village, Fiji. [Dave Allen, NIWA]

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NIWA's Dr Chris Tanner discussing sanitation options with members of the Water and Health Committees, Namaqumaqua Village, Fiji. [Dave Allen, NIWA]

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Out with the old, in with the new - A Namaqumaqua villager shows us his old pit toilet before a new latrine is installed on his property. Photograph by Dave Allen.

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Eroni Savou (left) and Semi Naqiolevu (right) standing in front of a brand new pit latrine at Namaqumaqua village. [Ricardo Morris]

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A young boy and girl sift through solid waste which has accumulated in a lagoon near the village of Taborio, South Tarawa. [Dave Allen, NIWA]