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By Russell Howorth Program Manager South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission

SUVA, Fiji Islands (March 6, 2001 – SOPAC)---In Auckland at the end of January the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) in collaboration with the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the New Zealand Wastewater and Wastes Association (NZWWA) convened a small planning meeting for an activity during 2001 to prepare a regional strategic plan to address sewage issues.

Sewage, as in human waste, I'm sure is an issue most would like to regard as "out of sight out of mind." Regrettably, like many issues in the small island states of the Pacific it is an issue that is getting insufficient attention. Rarely, if at all is it the subject of political debate. As a consequence, inability to cope with sewage is emerging as a potential risk to achieving sustainable development.

Sewage along with other "dirty water" or "black water" (as is the English translation from a couple of Pacific languages) in the broader "wastewater" context needs greater attention. As a step to achieving this, the intention is to develop a regional strategic action plan for wastewater from which can be developed initiatives both at the regional and national level to ensure potential problems are mitigated.

Fortunately, in recent years studies carried out for example by SOPAC and SPREP have documented the picture in the region in regard to wastewater, and in the process highlighted that lack of data is impeding knowledge building and understanding, as a necessary pre-requisite to finding solutions. Nonetheless, public awareness documents such as "Sanitation for Small islands" produced by SOPAC have received widespread use.

To assist the island countries, the regional organizations and other stakeholders develop the action plan for wastewater, the help of the NZWWA and the Australian Wastewater Association has been solicited.

It is true that in the region there are only a few urban areas, such as Greater Suva and Urban Majuro, with reticulated sewage systems. Even in these areas the extent of treatment of the sewage before discharge is limited and often discharge is direct with little or no treatment. Furthermore, in these areas increasing populations often living in "squatter settlements" are not connected. It is also true that apart from small centers of industry, by far the larger proportion of wastewater is domestic in origin. And in rural areas open defecation is still common.

By far the most widespread acceptable means of disposal of human waste and other wastewater is directly into the ground (pit latrines) or water (overhanging latrines, such as the nakatari over the lagoon in Kiribati) or at best septic tanks. As I reported in Islands Business in October 1999 small scale wastewater treatment plants have not received widespread acceptance to date.

Of course a key issue here is cost. The former, are low cost or no cost options whereas the latter can be expensive. Septic tank systems can cost upwards of several hundreds of dollars depending on the tank design.

What we are talking about here is largely about the disposal of water. With increasing populations and the increasing expectations of people for a better quality of life, the need for more clean water is increasing. It is somewhat of a paradox of course that what we are talking about is disposal of clean water when it becomes dirty, whether or not it has passed through the body.

An alternative of composting toilets is also not one that has, to date gained acceptance. Here the whole principal is to make minimal use of water in the sewage disposal process and enable the solids to be recovered for further use as for example fertilizer. Apart from cost, the question, "What do I do if the system fails?" is a major barrier, the implication and expectation being that a household is landed with a large smelly mess to clean up!

Ironically as governments look to tourism as a major key economic development sector, this sewage/wastewater issue is going to escalate. Foreign tourists, which most of the tourists in the region are, bring different expectations and habits onto the small islands. Almost without question the amount of water required is rising to levels beyond the capacities of many of our tourist islands. With this, of course, the amount of wastewater to be disposed of is rising beyond the capacities of our island to cope.

Yes, the ground generally and our soils are excellent filters, but any filter which is over-utilized eventually clogs-up and fails to do its job. Yes, the circulation system of our lagoons and near coastal ocean areas will disperse wastes offshore if the waste is put in at the right place into the circulation system. But once again the dispersal is only as good as the volumes of water being moved and if the volume increases and/or the current flows are too slow this "natural system" will fail to cope.

A point in all this is that wider use of flush toilets that require large volumes of water may not be an appropriate long-term sustainable option on our islands.

An old English saying goes something like this, "Where there's muck there's money." Without painting too gloomy a picture about a topic most people would prefer not to think about, the message from the old English saying is clear. Turn handling sewage and wastewater into an activity which generates money within our island economies and we have a winner.

This would likely be an acceptable output to aim for of a regional strategic action plan for wastewater.

Russell Howorth, Program Manager, South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission


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