Universal access to water and sanitation key to building a resilient Pacific
By Dr Stuart Minchin, Director-General Pacific Community (SPC)
This World Water Day, more than a million Pacific Islanders are waking to the task of collecting drinking water from a polluted stream or well, and to the challenge of finding a safe and private place in the bush or on the beach to go to the toilet.
This is not just an issue of hardship and inconvenience. Lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation poses a serious health risk - particularly to children - and a fundamental development constraint for Pacific nations. The practice of effective handwashing, a critical weapon in our defence against diseases such as COVID-19, relies on the existence of an affordable, reliable and resilient supply of clean water.
While access to potable water and sanitation is a basic human right that many of us take for granted, it is a right currently denied to over two thirds of Pacific Islanders especially those in rural areas, informal communities on the fringes of the region’s growing urban areas, and on the hundreds of small islands scattered across the Pacific.
The data collected by Pacific nations is striking. Recent data estimates approximately 45% of all Pacific Islanders continue to live without access to basic drinking water facilities, and some 70% live without access to basic sanitation – the highest of any region of the World.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the Pacific is by far the least urbanised region in the world, with close to three quarters of our population living in rural and outer island environments. This equates to around four out of every 10 of our rural dwellers having access to basic drinking water, compared to nine out of ten urban dwellers.
While these numbers are justifiably alarming, they don’t reflect the progress being made across the Pacific as a result of communities, governments and organisations working together. In Kiribati, for example, these efforts are beginning to show real results, with the atoll nation now recognised as one of only sixteen countries globally that have reduced rates of open defecation by more than 20% since 2000.
Indeed, significant efforts are occurring in every Pacific Island Country and Territory, however these efforts are not keeping pace with the pressures of population growth and the impacts of disaster and climate change.
In 2019, the World Risk Report found that the Pacific is once again leading the world in its exposure to disaster risk with five Pacific nations to be amongst the world’s top twelve countries ranked by exposure and vulnerability. This reality translates into genuine impacts on Pacific communities and, as a region disproportionately impacted by climate change and disaster, our challenge is to ensure that our water and sanitation services both improve the lives and livelihoods of Pacific people whilst ensuring water and sanitation facilities can withstand the impact of disaster and climate change.
Local knowledge and innovation are key to supporting robust and appropriate technologies that can withstand the impacts of extreme climate events and disasters and, in collaboration with global and regional partners such as the European Union and New Zealand, SPC is working with our member countries to demonstrate what local water and sanitation solutions can look like at the local level.
Whether by harnessing the latest survey technologies to find untapped water sources such as groundwater, working with remote communities to build sustainable and resilient drinking water systems, or by strengthening the capacity of atoll communities to anticipate, prepare for and respond to the impacts of drought, SPC has seen that locally-driven, evidence-based action can make a real difference.
To meet the challenge of securing safe water and sanitation for all, local solutions such as these need to be replicated and upscaled in collaboration with all partners and with a renewed sense of urgency. Local communities are core to this and will need greater support at grass-root levels to ensure access to water and sanitation supports the health, livelihoods and local environments of future generations.
We must accelerate action now and we must do it together.
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