Facing Water Challenges in the Pacific Islands:A WWDR3 Case Study

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The unique geography of the many small islands dotting the Pacific Ocean exposes them to waterrelated natural hazards compounded by the effects of climate change and variability, including sea level rise. Pacific island countries are struggling to build the capacity to address many challenges, such as developing coherent policy frameworks and integrated approaches to managing scarce freshwater resources.


Focus Areas

Water supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals: Pacific island countries have progressed at varying rates on the water and sanitation related Millennium Development Goals (MDG). For example, in 2006 only 46% of the population in the Pacific islands had access to improved drinking water. This corresponds to about half the 2006 global coverage rate. Although less populated countries such as the Cook Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, Niue, Tonga and Tuvalu have high coverage, the low coverage of Papua New Guinea, which alone represents three-quarters of the region’s population, pushes the regional average to levels comparable with those of the least developed regions. To make matters worse, rapid population growth, increasing urbanization, damage to water catchments resulting from deforestation, poor waste management practices leading to water pollution, and climate change are expected to exacerbate the challenge of providing access to safe water.

The proportion of households with access to improved sanitation varies greatly among the small Pacific island countries. Coverage is below 50% in nearly 40% of the islands. Sanitation systems in the Pacific islands rely principally on pit toilets and septic tanks. Contamination of water supplies caused by inadequate sanitation, along with other sources of pollution, low water availability and the use of poor quality groundwater as drinking water, leads to outbreaks of diarrhoea, cholera and other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and typhoid. Installation of affordable sanitation systems and the introduction of social programmes focused on behavioural change are needed in small island communities to improve water quality and human health.

The figures on water supply and sanitation clearly demonstrate the need for regional improvement to meet the MDGs. However, the lack of priority on water and sanitation issues in national development strategies, along with the inadequacy of budgetary resources allocated to the water sector, jeopardize the progress made by Pacific island countries as regards the MDGs. Forecasts indicate that in most parts of the Pacific region, problems resulting from increasing demand for water and increasing pollution of water may be much more significant than the expected effects of climate change (Hay, 2000). The Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action (BPoA+10) has emphasized that water and sanitation should be given high priority on global and national agendas during the ‘Water for Life’ Decade, especially within small island developing states. The Mauritius Declaration of 2005 highlighted water management and water access issues in Pacific island countries.

Vulnerability to water natural hazards

Pacific island countries are susceptible to floods, droughts and cyclones. Droughts are particularly dangerous as they affect the most vulnerable communities, such as those occupying marginal environments (ESCAP, 2000). Among the most widely used coping strategies are measures taken by individual households to conserve freshwater supplies and seek substitutes. Ideally, water management plans should address the inevitability of climate variability so that droughts do not necessarily require emergency response (SOPAC, 1999). This necessitates adequate hydrological data for analysis and design, as well as financial resources. But there is a significant lack of national capability for conducting water resource assessments in the South Pacific countries, and capacity building is needed.

Floods are also a significant hazard, especially in high Pacific island countries of volcanic origin. The hazard is greatest when the islands are within the zone affected by cyclones and associated extreme precipitation. Yet in many island countries, flood forecasting systems are either non-existent or not functioning due to poor maintenance. Tropical cyclones are more frequent in the western and central Pacific than in the eastern Pacific. The very high wind speeds of cyclones are often accompanied by extremely intense rainfall and storm surges, which can destroy buildings and coral reefs, damage crop trees, cause coastal flooding and erosion, and pollute water supplies. It is considered likely that climate change will result in increased cyclone wind speeds and even more damaging storm surges. Several island countries have taken initiatives to develop disaster management plans, often in response to particular disasters. However, resource constraints and the lack of coordinated national response plans continue to reduce the effectiveness of countries’ preparedness, for example in Papua New Guinea.

To conclude, small island developing states in the Pacific face many constraints, including their small size and remoteness, the limited availability of freshwater, increasing population and insufficient human and financial resources. These, coupled with vulnerability to climatic conditions, sea level rise and the degradation of water quality due to inadequate sanitation and waste disposal, present tough challenges for water resource management. Failure to give adequate attention to water and sanitation issues in national development strategies hampers the region’s ability to meet the MDGs and deal with climate variability and change.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Hay, J.E. 2000. Climate change and small island states: A popular summary of science-based findings and perspectives, and their links with policy. Presented at 2nd Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) workshop on climate change negotiations, management and strategy, Apia, 26 July – 4 August.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat/South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (PIFS/SOPAC). 2005. Pacific Cooperation Plan: Preliminary Sector Analysis for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. Suva, PIFS/SOPAC.

South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC). 1999. ENSO Impact on Water Resources in the Pacific Region: Workshop Report. Nadi, Fiji, November 1999. (Miscellaneous Report 336.)

South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC). 2002. Pacific Dialogue on Water and Climate: Synthesis Report. Prepared by Tony Falkland, Marc Overmars and David Scott. www.adb.org/water/Operations/Partnerships/Synthesis-Report- Pacific-Dialogue.pdf (Accessed November 2008.)

South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC). 2007. Mobilising People towards Integrated Water Resources Management: A Guide in Community Action, Live and Learn Environmental Education. Suva, SOPAC. (Joint Contribution Report 191.)

Taulima, F. 2002. Water management in Tuvalu with special emphasis on rainwater harvesting: Case study presented as part of Theme 1, Water Resources Management. Pacific Regional Consultation Meeting on Water in Small Island Countries, Sigatoka, Fiji, 29 July – 3 August.

UNESCO. 1991. Hydrology and Water Resources of Small islands, a Practical Guide. Prepared by A. Falkland (ed.) and E. Custodio. Paris, UNESCO. (Studies and reports on hydrology No 49.) United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

(ESCAP). 2000. Pacific Islands Background Information, Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific, Kitakyushu, Japan, September. http://www.unescap.org/ mced2000/pacific/background (Accessed November 2008.)

White, I. et al. 2007. Society-Water Cycle Interactions in the Central Pacific: Impediments to Meeting the UN Millennium Goals for Freshwater and Sanitation. Proceedings of RIHN 1st International Symposium Water and Better Human Life in the Future, Kyoto, Japan, 6–8 November.

World Bank. 2000. Cities, Seas and Storms: Managing Change in Pacific Island Economies - Vol. IV: Adapting to Climate Change. Washington, DC, World Bank, Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island Country Unit. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/ INTPACIFICISLANDS/Resources/4-VolumeIV+Full.pdf World Health Organization/South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission

(WHO/SOPAC). 2008. Sanitation, hygiene and drinking-water in the Pacific island countries: Converting commitment into action. Geneva/Suva, WHO/SOPAC.

External Resources

United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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