Water solutions in nature – too simplistic?

Water solutions in nature – too simplistic?

On the island of Daru in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province, the local environment is straining under a lack of planned development and the human footprint. Where mangroves once grew on the foreshore of this low-lying island, rubbish has replaced the trees. Daru’s water is naturally brackish and freshwater is pumped from the mainland 25km away. The pipeline however, has been broken since January, reportedly damaged by increasing flood water.

Water security in Daru

With no piped freshwater, those living on the island depend on rainwater and brackish well-water. There are also five schools in the town of Daru, and three have now been closed by the health department; deemed unsanitary due to a lack of water. I was in Daru visiting our partner Live and Learn for the Western Pacific Sanitation Marketing and Innovation Program on World Water Day this year. To mark the day, Live and Learn had arranged a community march which all five schools joined. The official theme was nature for water, but the unofficial message was all schools need functional Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services.

The General Manager of Water PNG met with the community and showed leadership in acknowledging his company’s shortcomings. With piped-water disrupted since January, tensions are high in the local community and he admitted he was concerned about joining any public activity. Despite this, he came forward to speak on the current challenges and his hope to get water flowing again. In a way he called for a social contract with the community – “You pay your bills, I’ll fix the pipes and you will get clean fresh water”.

Nature a part of the solution

The General Manager’s message is a common one. We must recognise however, that one of Daru’s key challenges is connected to this year’s World Water Day theme – solutions in nature. As long as Daru’s water supply remains dependant on a single, engineered solution, water security will remain at risk. The water pipe broke because of flood waters; flooding made worse by the removal of the mangroves.

A recent Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) report has cast doubt on groundwater presenting an easy alternative. The island’s groundwater is too saline. Ultimately a mixed solution to this challenge is required. One that taps into groundwater for household hygiene needs. Rainwater and pipe freshwater can then be prioritised for drinking.

Fixing the pipe will require an investment from central and local government, along with a willingness to pay from the local community. A shift in water usage norms and a better appreciation of the value of water will be needed to achieve this. A greater understanding of how altering the mangroves is affecting flood waters is also needed. Finding a solution must be multi-dimensional; nature, floods, understanding hazards, and a critical assessment of alternative sources must all be considered.

Lessons on leadership from Daru

The take away lessons for me are two fold – first, solutions need to be multi-dimensional. For example, the #AWDO2016 presents a framework for water security that considers five key dimensions. The application of such frameworks can help practitioners think through the role of the environment, hazards, and other factors.

Second is the role of leaders. In Daru, the general manager showed courage in turning up and speaking out. He could have easily hidden behind the ‘too busy’ excuse. As a sector we need to find better ways to support local leaders to find the best-fit solutions to complex water challenges. This is not just about technical skills, but the skill to be able to influence. Including the ability to communicate a shared vision and seek an alignment, and commitment, from all key stakeholders. On World Water Day, I take my hat off to the General Manager of PNG Water Daru.


Declan Hearne | Program Manager, Capacity Development, Training and Applied Research

Email d.hearne@watercentre.org


Learn more about the Western Pacific Sanitation Marketing and Innovation Program.

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