The Western Pacific region has made great strides in helping its population access safe drinking water, and between 1990 and 2015, successfully reduced the cases of preventable water-related diseases which still claim tens of thousands of lives each year. 

Despite this progress, nearly 90 million people in the region still do not have access to a basic drinking-water facility and some countries fare far worse than others. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 60 percent of the population does not have access to safe drinking water - roughly five million people. 

This contrasts sharply for example to Vanuatu where only 5.5 percent does not have access to drinking water and just 12.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In Tonga, only 0.4 percent of the population does not have access to safe water.

So why are there such huge differentials between PNG and neighbouring Pacific Island nations? Little progress has been made since 1990, with only a 6 percent increase in access to clean drinking water and, in fact, sanitation coverage has dropped slightly in that time. Water is seen as a luxury; the average cost of 50 litres of water in the country’s capital, Port Moresby, costs AED 8.55 ($2.32), half the average daily salary, and 26 times the cost of the equivalent in the UK.

Sanitation is poor; around 6.2 million people do not have a basic toilet and more than 200 children die each year of sanitation related issues such as diarrhoea and around 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, so the importance of clean water is obvious. Oxfam New Zealand claims that contaminated water in Papua New Guinea kills 368 people every six weeks.

A pilot project in Vanuatu explored converting sunshine and air into water in the highly populated area of Tanna. Though rainfall is common, safe drinking water was not. The project saw the installation of 20 panels with solar-powered drinking water technology to convert sun, air and rain into safe drinking water. For the community around the Petros Primary School it was transformative to have access to water free of charge. The Asian Development Bank financed project cost a total of $75,000 and meant that each of the 20 solar panels produces three to five litres a day.

Health and hygiene education is also critical and has been at the heart of the UN’s ‘Wash’ programme which claims that hygiene practices including open defecation remain prevalent in certain remote areas, meaning up to a shocking 400 times more risk of diarrhoea than Australia and New Zealand in the worst hit areas. In Papua New Guinea, diarrhoea accounts for 6,000 deaths yearly, the highest in the Pacific region and after 50 years, 2009 saw the re-emergence of cholera. For now, UNICEF is starting with schools, providing water tanks, toilet and hand washing facilities. These are small steps to try to overcome huge problems and gross inequalities. In 2018, UNICEF research found that less than one third of schools have adequate hygiene facilities and just over half have access to clean water. Fighting huge national challenges of natural disaster, disease and poverty, all mean a constant battle for life’s basics, in the Pacific Islands’ struggling sibling. 

In the Soloman Islands community of Bolava, it was the addition of 20 new rainwater catchment tanks which proved pivotal in bringing clean water within reach. With each holding up to 2,000 litres of water, the catchment and storage system marked a turning point in simple, accessible methods to access safe drinking water, eliminating long walks or canoe trips to sources or rivers to collect water each day. 

The system was part of the Solomon Islands Rural Development Programme, a jointly funded project between the World Bank, the Australian Government, the European Union, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the Solomon Islands Government. The idea is to empower the communities to manage such simple projects themselves, ensuring sustainable development across infrastructure, design and support.

Things are changing, but funding is much needed. In 2017 The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved a credit of $70mn to support Papua New Guinea’s water sector, improving access to clean and reliable water supply services for the population of nine provincial towns and 10 rural districts. The project aimed to improve services, not only improving access to resources but also refurbishing piped water connections to eliminate the need for long excursions, often taken by the women and children, to collect water each day. It also helps to educate on hygiene and empower the community with knowledge and participation.

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