Kiribati is an Island Nation in the Pacific under increasing pressure from the drastic effects of climate change. Kiribati is made up of 32 atolls spreading over 3,500,000 square kilometres. Of the 32 atolls, only 20 are inhabited. None of these atolls has significant mountains or hills making rising sea levels a growing challenge for the residents. Sources of water such as wells have shown increased levels of salt deposits over the years gradually worsening the availability of safe drinking water.
In 2011, The European Union, in partnership with the Pacific Community, UNICEF and the Government of Kiribati, initiated the Water and Sanitation in the Outer Islands of the Republic of Kiribati (KIRIWATSAN I) as well as reducing water, sanitation and hygiene related diseases. The EU funded project has two phases planned, with the second phase of the project, KIRIWATSAN II, targeting 35 villages across the 16 islands of the Gilbert Group.
Pauline Komolong, Project Coordinator, Kiribati Water and Sanitation in Outer Islands (KIRIWATSAN) Phase 2 Project, highlighted the struggles of local villagers.
“I’ve actually been around all those 35 villages across the eight islands and I think some of the challenges that they face, like some of the drinking water sources are located away from the village and kids helping their parents to go get water, often they are late for school, you know such things like that,” Komolong said.
One of the residents, Tom, and his wife live with their extended family on the island of Abaiang in the Republic of Kiribati. Abaiang with a population of just over 5,000 residents is located north of Tarawa and like thousands across the atolls, people are faced with a major water crisis.
According to Tom, “we prefer to drink rain water, the current well water tastes quite salty these days compared to the past. Well water normally quite far from household and very hard to get water, you have to carry it in a heavy bucket to your house.”
Safe drinking water for daily consumption in Abaiang is becoming a scarce resource and the ability to receive and store clean drinking water has become a daily struggle. Families are forced to collect drinking water from neighboring villages and some villagers have to travel long distances to source water for basic needs.
Timwamwa, a villager from the village of Ewena in Abaiang explained, “We have experienced difficulties with water in the past. We have to go and get fresh water from nearby villages like Taburao and even the farthest ones too like Kikao.”
Ianetama Kaigitaake, Mayor of Abaiang Island, is also worried about the lack of rainfall over the years and the quality of drinking water available for the residents to consume on the atoll.
“You know this time we are facing a heavy drought, so one of the major, basic needs of the people is water and sanitation, especially on water, because we are having less, very small rain fall and so the people are having problems with drinking water, because you know, in some of the villages in Abaiang they have bad water standard, they need, they need help to get water from somewhere from places where they have good water.”
Water catchments such as the Tamana Pumps, designed by the locals, could be seen in every village and atoll across Kiribati. However, these water catchments are often no longer safe for drinking or cooking as most of the wells are open without a cover or apron.
The lack of proper sanitation and toilet facilities contributes to the contamination of ground water as toilets are built poorly and too close to water sources.
The Councilor for Tiarap, Bwerei Nabakoa, Village is concerned about the unhygienic quality of well water in his village. “The problem is the well. Because some places they don’t use their well for cooking because its maybe poison or something like that,” he said.
The consumption of contaminated water has led to serious health problems for those living in the outer atolls. Nabakoa also raised concerns on the increasing number diseases directly linked to the consumption of contaminated drinking water.
“I got some sores that happen in my skin and also in my legs and we try to find the way to cure it and we went to the hospital but some nurses say that it happened because of the water, it’s not so clean, not so well, we should boil the water and make sure that it is coming to a boiling temperature before we drink,” Nabakoa explained.
The Medical Clinic in Abaiang reports daily on patients treated due to water related health issues. Some of these are due to wells being located near livestock gates, such as pig farms.
According to Berekita Ereman a Medical Assistance on Abiang Isalnd, most of the germs and bacteria from these livestock farms flow down into the wells and water catchments when it rains.
The Pacific Community (SPC) is currently working with various stakeholders in Kiribati to instill hygienic practices amongst the villagers. Kaigitaake, Mayor of Abaiang Island, is relieved by SPC’s efforts to combat these hygiene challenges being faced by Kiribati residents.
“Already in schools we have the WASH program coordinated by UNICEF, in every school the children have been taught about how to look after their water and their shower room and their toilet room and the taps. We are lucky that we are already covering that and our students and our children have learned how to look after them well,” he said.
The two objectives of KIRIWATSAN II, as highlighted by the project coordinator Pauline Komolong, are improving access to clean drinking water and appropriate sanitation, and local capacity building.
Each of the 35 villages will have either rainwater harvesting tanks, communal wells or individual well improvements with Tamana pumps or village reticulated wells using low yielding solar submersible powered pumps to provide water. However this too will have measures in place to be maintained and monitored by the village.
World Menstrual Hygeine Day is another part of the wider project.
According to Komolong, “Knowing what water play in the role of families and girls more importantly and so that was one of the reason why we agreed to come and support the island council and the education, the schools here on Abaiang to celebrate the world menstrual hygiene day.”
Meanwhile, water and sanitation infrastructure protection laws has been strengthened in Abaiang so that there is minimal wastage of clean drinking water on the atoll.
“We have to decide on making a rule that a person or a man found causing damage, playing around with the pipes or taps, we should make rules about that to try and make them pay for what they did, for what damage they caused to the project,” said Mayor Kaigitaake.
Due to the installation of these new tanks and clean drinking water sources and at a closer distance to access water, the number of water related diseases (diarrhea) has decreased. This change comes as a relief for those residents who had to walk great distances to access safe drinking water.
According to Komolong, people will now tend to improve their livelihood, improve their households and their welfare, thanks to the increasing access to water and also having proper, safe sanitation on these outer islands will make a great impact on the lives of Kiribati people.