SOUTH TARAWA — The island nation of Kiribati is surrounded by water, but ironically there are very few sources of clean water available to its inhabitants. The main sources of fresh water, rainwater and shallow unconfined groundwater are very vulnerable to contamination from poor sanitation systems and facilities. This water shortage is intensified by long periods of drought, especially during La Niña, that threaten agriculture and affect people’s health. During these periods, piped water is heavily rationed and waterborne illness rates increase due to the necessity of using groundwater.
Until recently, the majority of communities in Kiribati used ground water from wells for cooking, drinking, farming and more. Although boiled to reduce chances of contamination, this water was very easily contaminated by seawater during floods and king tides, making children especially very sick. Infant mortality is extremely high in the Pacific Islands, with 43 deaths per 1000 live births. Infant diarrhea contributes disproportionately to this high rate of infant mortality.
Several problems have arisen out of bathroom facilities set up near water supplies, putting communities at risk for diseases like Hepatitis A and diarrhea due to poor water quality in Kiribati.
Although this water contamination is widespread and persistent, several low-cost options have become available to improve the water quality in Kiribati. In the atoll of Tamana in Southern Kiribati, the “Tamana Pump” has been developed to reduce water contamination.
The pump is a simple hand-powered system that is used to collect water from closed wells in place of a bucket or tin container which can contaminate a well’s entire water supply. Kiribati’s unique challenge is that its island location means that maintenance or spare parts to fix a more complicated water collection system are potentially months away, making the Tamana pump the best option because it has no electronics or complicated mechanisms and can be easily repaired. The system is also well known enough that community members can repair it themselves.
Water tests performed at Tamana pump sites confirm the superior water quality, and experts say there is huge potential for improving water quality on the atoll with this system as 92 percent of households report using handheld buckets to obtain water from wells.
The government of Kiribati is incorporating improved water quality as part of their “whole-of-island” approach to climate change adaption and disaster risk management, beginning with the Abaiang atoll. The Kiribati Adaption Program, a program intended to reduce the effects of climate change on the island, is in its third phase of installing rainwater harvesting systems in several communities.
It has already established around 50 pumps around North Tarawa, sending water straight to tanks to be stored and then shared among communities who will decide how to ration it in times of drought. Programs like this strengthen water supplies and make water quality in Kiribati more sustainable for the future.
– Saru Duckworth