SANITATION ON SMALL ISLANDS IN THE PACIFIC REGION

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SOUTH PACIFIC APPLIED GEOSCIENCE COMMISSION (SOPAC) Suva, Fiji Islands

Press Release October 15, 1999

By Russell Howorth

SUMMARY

Out of Sight Out of Mind. In general, the sanitation field seems to live the life of an orphan in many Pacific Island countries. This important sector of public health has been left aside when upgrading projects improved the water supply systems in many other countries worldwide.

CONTENTS

Like all "mod-cons," what was life like before the invention of flush toilets? And, yes, there really was a Thomas Crapper, a fellow Yorkshireman who was reputedly an excellent plumber who lived in Victorian England, 1837-1910. Crapper's claim to fame is that he invented the syphonic flush mechanism that gives us the flushing toilet as we know it today, and so badly at times rely on it. Sadly, it is likely he was not the inventor of Patent 4990 as recorded in the British Library as "Crapper's Valveless Waste Water Preventer," but that is another story.

In recent years many areas on small islands in the region have been provided with some kind of water supply system. The availability of water leads to widespread use of flush toilet systems. These systems mainly use simple toilets to discard the wastewater either directly into the ground or simply into holes. At the same time many villages still supplement their water supply from shallow wells, which are often located in the direct neighborhood of the toilets. Even if landowners consider the possible contamination of their well through their own toilet and locate them well spaced they cannot often avoid the location of their neighbor’s toilet. A similar risk of water body contamination occurs where villages situated on the banks of a small estuary/lagoon discharge their wastewater without treatment.

In general, the sanitation field seems to live the life of an orphan in many Pacific Island Countries. In many cases this important sector of public health has been left aside when major upgrading projects improved the water supply systems in many countries and provinces, basically ignoring the downstream effect of improved water supply that results in increased discharges into the ground, rivers and groundwater systems. Two obvious reasons appear to be the major cause: firstly, wastewater collection and treatment is costly and the benefit is often hard to show; secondly, even if low-cost solutions are being implemented, many projects fail to deliver the expected outcome.

Without pretending to reflect the complexity of sanitation projects three principal reasons may be held accountable for those problems. The technology has not been appropriate, the beneficiary has not been involved and consulted sufficiently, and the responsibilities within government have not been resolved to ensure the necessary support.

In July 1998, New Zealand approved a small regional project to SOPAC that aimed at introducing Small Scale Wastewater Treatment Plants (SSWTP) into Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Niue, and Tonga. This article is based on the results of this project carried out by Rhonda Bower and Harald Scholzel of the SOPAC Water Resources Unit.

Specifically it was considered that SSWTP technology may be applicable in the following situations: conventional sewage is simply too costly; environmental conditions require a high effluent quality; conventional on-site treatment proved to be of low community acceptance; and low technology solutions, such as composting toilets, seem to be inappropriate. The following is a summary of the findings in the Marshall Islands.

On Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands there is rather lax control over the design of any sanitation facilities due to financial and technical constraints leading to tanks not being built to adequate specifications. The removal of sludge is the responsibility of the owner of the dwelling. There is no organized sludge removal through a public or private service. Septic tanks and pit latrines discharge their effluent through simple soak pits into the ground. Strong smells in the vicinity of septic tanks and pit latrines indicate malfunction of the system or direct discharge of wastewater and sludge into the soak pits. Old fresh, or brackish water, wells are often used as pit latrines, increasing the danger of severe contamination by directly channeling wastewater into the groundwater.

Apart from the common septic tanks, most of Urban Majuro is served by a saltwater supply system to flush toilets for which a sewerage system collects the wastewater for these areas and discharges into the ocean. In some areas open defecation on the beach or in the bush is very common. The current sanitation practices present a high risk of transmitting water-borne diseases with the risk invariably higher for populations that rely on groundwater or shallow wells for water. In the Laura area at the northwest end of Majuro Atoll that holds the only significant groundwater lens on the atoll and is vital during droughts, the groundwater is under extreme danger to be polluted by increasing population and depleted by the related increasing freshwater demand.

In conclusion, the flush toilet, whether invented or not by Thomas Crapper a hundred years ago, has now become an integral (highly desired?) part of our lifestyle on Pacific small islands. In an instant that syphonic flush releases volumes of wastewater, which the environment may have difficulty coping with. We need to address this, not turn our backs on the problem, or slip into an "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" sense of feeling. Small wastewater treatment plants may be a solution, and SOPAC's Water Resources Unit staff will continue to pursue this possibility by way of its sanitation work program.

For more information, contact: Russell Howorth Program Manager SOPAC Secretariat Tel: (679) 381-377 Fax: (679) 370-040 Email: russell@sopac.org.fj 

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