COOK ISLANDS LOOKS TO ADB-FUNDED LANDFILL FIX

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AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (July 6, 2001 - Pacific Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---With continued political uncertainty or unrest in islands to the west, the Cook Islands are fast becoming a preferred travel destination. Sandy white beaches, clear lagoons and low-lying coral atolls make the Cooks a tourist’s paradise. And the statistics are there to prove it.

According to the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, approximately 72,900 tourists visited the islands in 2000, a record high, compared with 55,600 visitors the previous year. Rather impressive numbers considering the country’s overall population is under 14,000.

The increase in tourism has been a major boost for the economy, but it has also produced some negative side effects, including a significant increase in solid waste. "If you look around, there is not much land," said Tukatara Tangi, a senior environmental officer with the Cook Islands Environmental Services. "Things are starting to pile up on us and we need to control what we’re disposing."

Cook Islanders for the most part have been burning their waste, burying it or simply dumping it on the country’s fragile beach estuaries, swamps and mangroves. The result: polluted waterways, lagoons and water supply. A new proposed state-of-the-art landfill, however, is expected to change all that.

According to the government’s plan, the new landfill in Rarotonga, as well as a smaller one for the neighboring island of Aitutaki, will have the latest health and safety features, including polyurethane lined waste pits, proper drainage and septic sludge ponds for the safe disposal of waste for the next 15-20 years.

The cost is estimated at $2.8 million and will be financed with a loan from the Asian Development Bank. Construction is expected to start by 2002.

Although a new Rarotonga landfill is desperately needed, environmental groups are concerned about the proposed site and the need for the government to conduct a thorough environmental impact assessment. "There is going to have to be a landfill," Bruce Gray, a spokesperson for the Rarotonga Environmental Awareness Program (REAP), said recently. "But, the question has always been location."

The proposed site is to be located near an old quarry, very close to a couple of mountain streams that flow directly to the ocean. "If they continue to dynamite up at the quarry site, what will happen if the [landfill] lining begins to develop holes in it, or leaks and tears?" Gray questioned. It is already unsafe to eat fish caught inside Rarotonga’s reef and water from the tap is considered unsafe to drink without it first being boiled. Such problems pose a threat to the health of the local population, as well as the tourism industry upon which the Cooks’ economy depends.

The government has assured the public that all environmental concerns will be addressed and that their comments are welcomed.

There’s still a short-term problem. Even if the landfill meets all the necessary safety requirements, it is not expected to be up and running until 2003. What’s to be done with waste until then? "A lot of things can be reduced prior to a landfill, particularly in the area of recycling," Gray said in an interview.

REAP has already initiated several successful programs, including the Save Our Shores campaign to reduce shoreline erosion and lagoon pollution and the Recycling on Raro campaign. Of the approximately four million aluminum cans brought into the Cook Islands each year, about 25 percent are recycled. They are crushed on the island and then shipped to New Zealand. "This is a very high percentage for not only a voluntary effort, but even for a mandatory recycling system," Gray said.

Compared with other Pacific Islands, the Cooks are quite clean, thanks to a high level of public awareness. But more work needs to be done to address the growing number of environmental concerns. "Global warning is a big issue that may pose some problems to the lower lying atolls in the northern Cooks in the next 100 years or so," Gray said. "However, unsafe drinking water and chemical pollution of the lagoons will kill us far quicker!"

For additional reports from Pacific Magazine, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Magazines/Journals/Pacific Magazine.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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