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August 23 2000

By Russell Howorth Program Manager South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC)

As a reasonably regular visitor to the Federated States of Micronesia over the past ten years, one of the delights I have become accustomed to is a plate of fresh, superbly fresh sashimi. So you can imagine the look of horror on my face when, sitting at a table in a Pohnpei restaurant one Sunday evening in late June, I was confronted with the waitress telling me that because of the sickness, "No sashimi!"

My yearning for sashimi had become victim of the recent cholera outbreak in Pohnpei. So, while I waited for my alternative menu choice to arrive, my mind wondered to the realities and the consequences of unreliable water supply and water quality in our Pacific small island developing states.

SOPAC has among other responsibilities, the mandate among the regional organizations to address water, sanitation and disaster management issues. Consequently, subsequent conversations in Pohnpei revealed that in the immediate past several weeks since the cholera outbreak occurred the full cause had not yet been established. But, two fairly recently installed village catchment supplies on the island, but outside of Kolonia, the main urban area, were being targeted as the source of the outbreak. Installed in 1995, the water quantity was good but there was no ongoing water quality monitoring program in place. SOPAC's national contact for water resources explained that the cholera outbreak had demonstrated the urgent need for water management "wise practices" programs for rural community water supply systems.

The toll of the cholera outbreak on Pohnpei to date: as many as 15 deaths, no school for over one month, and the emerging yet to be determined economic costs of eradication, hospitalization, loss of income from tourism, and a possibility of Japan banning the importation of fresh tuna from Pohnpei, a major export earner for the country. An emerging national disaster?

In London, only two weeks prior to my Pohnpei visit, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State, Peter Hain, made a statement to a conference on "Alternatives to Water Wars: Resolving Middle East Water Disputes." In his statement he highlighted, among other things, that poverty will not be eliminated until everyone has easy access to clean and safe water. Furthermore, the poor bear the brunt of the natural disasters which so often come in the form of too little water, or too much, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Coincidentally also, in the Hague only weeks before the cholera outbreak in Pohnpei, the world's water wizards met in March for the Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference to launch "Vision 21: Water for People", a shared vision for hygiene, sanitation and water supply. Vision 21 states it is an initiative to put an end to a global crisis.

Enormous achievements have been made over the past two decades, through programs such as the "Provision of Water and Sanitation for All" in the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade in the 1980s, and the UNICEF goal of "Health for All by the Year 2000," which included goals to provide safe drinking water in the developing countries. Despite these and other initiatives, Vision 21recalls that an estimated one billion of the world’s population still lack safe drinking water, while almost three billion lack adequate sanitation. More than two million children die each year from sanitation-related diseases such as cholera. The shared vision is to achieve by the year 2025 a clean and healthy world: a world in which every person has safe and adequate water and sanitation and lives in a hygienic environment.

The executive summary of Vision 21: Water for the People, points out that governments do not solve problems...people do. A statement that closely relates to the urgent need expressed by SOPAC's contact in Pohnpei, communities need to learn "wise practices."

A sobering reality check for the Pacific small island developing states is that in the region, there are still large numbers of people without what could be described as a safe and adequate water supply.

Water and sanitation as foundations to the economic growth and social development in the region are vital. The need to restore the place of water and sanitation in the priority list for action can be helped by drawing the attention of individuals, communities, politicians and other decision makers to the consequences of poor water supply and sanitation. The major linkage of water and sanitation with health and economics needs to be highlighted. The effects of poor health in a country on the educational performance of children, and labor productivity of its people generally need to be clearly broadcast.

Particularly, though not unique to the region, there is a lack of clear legal rights relating to the ownership of water. Landowners throughout the Pacific Island countries usually have custom rights to carry out whatever activity they choose on their own land, regardless of the consequences to the water resources which flow over or under that land.

The will to alter this right of the individual in preference to a national need is not a step readily taken. But maybe the time is opportune to open the dialogue on how to define the path down which we need to walk. As a result, this first step can be taken with the confidence and the assurance that this is indeed a walk down a vital and critical path for the well being of future generations.

In this regard, let me congratulate Jessica Elley, a 14-year-old student at Sansrik Elementary School in Kosrae State of the Federated States of Micronesia for winning first prize in one of the World Water Day competitions organized by SOPAC earlier in the year. As a conclusion to her winning entry Jessica pointed out, and I quote, "I would recommend that this kind of water re-use be taught to all people at all ages in every community, but especially to younger kids at school like me because we are the future of the water needs and problems..."

Let us unite to see Jessica's words bear fruit and work to eradicate from our island life style of the 21st century the misuse of water and the sicknesses of cholera and other water-borne deceases associated with poor water supply and sanitation, so that we may each and everyone of us, especially Jessica's generation and generations to come, satisfy our needs and desires...sashimi or otherwise.

For more information, please contact Dr. Howorth at: Email:  Fax: (679)370-040 Tel: (679)381-377

Anna Elaise Information Technology Officer South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission Email:  Fax: (679)370-040

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