Dirty water killing 368 people in PNG every 6 weeks

Oxfam New Zealand says dirty water in Papua New Guinea kills 368 people every six weeks.

A new campaign by Oxfam NZ plans to build taps and send water and sanitation experts to PNG's highlands, where fresh clean water is in short supply.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker:Barry Coates, Head of Oxfam NZ

COATES: The problem of dirty water and inadequate sanitation causing diarrheal disease and killing particularly children has been known for some time and goals have been set to try to improve the coverage of clean and safe water or sanitation. But actually particularly the Melanesian countries in the Pacific are lagging well behind the international efforts on water and sanitation. So Oxfam's trying to highlight this issue and we raise money from the New Zealand public in order to support this work, and we're trying to make a particular push for it at the moment.

COUTTS: Why is PNG or the Melanesian countries lagging behind in sanitation and clean water?

COATES: I think there's various kind of reasons for it, many of the population live in remote and rural areas, transport infrastructure is not good to get there. Often there's a perception because there's enough rainfall that there isn't a problem of safe water, which is by no means the case. But I think really often it's a lack of funding and particularly I think a lack of ongoing commitment from donors and governments to work in ways that are going to do things systematically over the long term rather than be one-off changes. And what we've seen is a lot of initiatives sort of started over the years in the Pacific, but often not carried through to provide good water and sanitation for the long term. And then in rural areas there's often not a machinery of local government to be able to maintain those water supplies and to ensure that they continue to work.

COUTTS: Three-hundred-and-68 people in the next six weeks will die from drinking dirty water. What age groups are we looking at, are they at the extremes, the young and the elderly?

COATES: Yes exactly and particularly the young. But the incidence of diarrhoea really affects children under five years old, particularly it's one of the reasons why there's very high death rates children under five years old in countries like PNG and Kiribati and others.

COUTTS: And we're talking about rural areas, the preponderance of deaths in rural areas?

COATES: We are although in many kind of urban areas, particularly we're they're in formal settlements in urban areas, similar problems occur with a cycle of dirty water and either open defecation or very poor sanitation and it gets into the water supply so people end up drinking unsafe water that makes them sick. So for children it's a particularly short cycle before they get into severe health problems and then death.

COUTTS: What are the immediate needs, what needs to be done on the ground in Papua New Guinea so that those 368 people over the next six weeks don't die?

COATES: A lot of communities recognise this problem, so one of the ways that groups like Oxfam work with communities is to be able to start with the process of education and educating people about sanitation really has to be the start of the process. So it sounds quite awful, but we get people to describe where they go to the toilet and to map it and this is a way to help the community realise that it's a community problem, because everyone is affected by everyone else. And once people understand that and are able to come to a community commitment to take care of sanitation, then that becomes the first stage in the way the safe water then follows on because you then have the conditions for safe drinking water. The technologies are very simple, the way we work is that they have to be community buy-in before we start work and those communities will then be charged with ownership of the system and its maintenance, and because they've done most of the work in building it they know how it works. We're not talking about complex technologies here, these are very simple either water harvesting systems or gravity fed systems. So the other thing that this does as well as helping health, it saves women from walking very long distances to get water. And it is one of the things that if you go to the rural areas in places like PNG, the burden of getting water from far off places falls very much on women and often young girls. And they sort have to carry massive loads for in some cases a couple of hours down to a river and up to eight hours coming back. And then repeat the cycle every few days. This is kind of a major problem of women's work in places like the PNG Highlands, and really having piped water to the village is just such a massive change in people's lives.

COUTTS: Clean water and well placed pit latrines?

COATES: Yeah absolutely, and in a way a sort of a community understanding that this must be maintained and continued and that everyone must participate.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation