Land Issues Halt Cook Islands Massive Water Project

Work stops on Te Mato Vai, government must satisfy landowners

By Florence Syme-Buchanan 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, May 25, 2016) – Complex land issues have halted the $60 million Te Mato Vai project.

It’s not known when work will resume on the water mains project or if government will be able to resolve the many land issues it now faces.

At the outset of the country’s costliest project and contrary to advice, the government did not think it needed to sort through the land issues before embarking on the project. Its decision to go ahead has now come back to haunt it.

In December Chinese contractors CCECC packed up their tools and machinery and left the country, despite the project being incomplete. More recently, CI News has been told the company contracted to manage the Mato Vai project, Kupa Engineering and Water (KEW) has been let go because ongoing problems with landowners have halted work indefinitely.

Work stopped on the project late last year after landowners in Titikaveka strongly objected to their land being bulldozed to make way for a road to lay water pipes. The landowners claimed government had made no effort to fully consult with them before any of the work took place. There were also strong objections from the landowners of water intakes in Turangi and Avana to the prospect that domestic users would be charged for water consumption.

Project leadership was transferred from deputy prime minister Teariki Heather to Finance minister Mark Brown, as Heather had been unable to make any progress in around six months.

In a joint statement released yesterday morning,  KEW  and the Ministry of Finance and  Economic Management (MFEM) announced the termination of KEW’s contract supervising stage one of the Te Mato Vai project. The government claims “well over 90 per cent of stage one has been finished.”

KEW was engaged by the government to manage all stages of the project and was to be paid a reported $3 million for deliverying the job. MFEM did not disclose how much KEW has been paid for an incomplete job.

This reporter was told of KEW’s termination last week. Questions sent to Brown were forwarded on to MFEM secretary Garth Henderson. No responses have been received to questions that included;  where is the project now, what progress has been made on settling land issues, why did CCECC leave when the project is still incomplete and what is the cost to taxpayers (repaying loans) for a stalled project.

According to the release, land issues have prevented access to the last two or three kilometres to finish the ring main.

In a telling disclosure, the release said there was  “no end in sight to the (land) issues,” meaning the government isn’t anticipating resolving numerous issues with landowners anytime soon.

The release says although laying the new ring mains started later than expected, the contract proceeded at a pace that saw almost all the work completed well within the contract time and price; but brought to a halt by land owner issues.

Cook Islands Investment Corporation CEO Tamarii Tutangata told CI News last year that he’d warned if land issues were not settled amicably at the outset, the water project would be plagued with problems and would be difficult to complete.

Now government is admitting that it is also land problems that are stalling stage two getting underway. This stage involves refurbishing water intakes in the foothills around Rarotonga.

KEW managing director Latu Kupa  is quoted in the release as saying he’s saddened his company wasn’t able to complete the whole of stage one and see it and stage two commisssioned to provide a better, more reliable and potable water supply for Rarotonga.

“However dealing with the land issues is something that can only be sorted out between the government and the landowners. It’s out of our control. Although we would have liked to be part of getting the new system and the authority to run it up and going.”

“We’re proud that we and the CCECC contractors and their local sub-contractors, were able to finish our bit – that we’ve been able to do - expeditiously and on time.”

MFEM head  Garth Henderson says with stage one ring main infrastructure practically completed and land issues prevailing, the government decided to review project management.

“After thorough consideration, it was determined that the project had reached a point where overall management could be simplified. Government is keen to maintain the momentum established under KEW’s purview, but is always looking for options that best serve the project and country.

“Stage one contractor CCECC completed its works almost 10 months ahead of the planned schedule under the supervision of Kew, and the government would like to acknowledge the speed and efficiency at which this was delivered.”

Henderson did not respond to a question as to whether another company has been approached by government to take over from KEW.

Cook Islands News
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