Tackling safe water challenges in Kiribati

August 15, 2023 by ChildFund New Zealand

20 July 2023

Kiribati, with its rising seawater, periods of drought, and sporadic rains, is the face of climate change in the Pacific.

Accessing clean, safe water is a daily challenge for children and families. Shallow groundwater, which is contaminated with seawater, rubbish, and other waste, is the main drinking water source of the small Pacific island nation.

Kiribati’s unsafe drinking water problem was highlighted after ChildFund conducted testing of available water sources. The results showed a decline in drinking water quality in just one year.

Testing in December 2021 showed 73% of the 1,875 households that participated in the water quality program had unsafe or likely-unsafe drinking water due to bacterial contamination. 

Groundwater in Kiribati is only 1 to 2 meters deep and is easily contaminated, particularly in densely populated areas like Betio and, with inadequate waste disposal, it’s a significant problem across Kiribati.

Inundation of land by seawater, human and livestock waste, and graves around houses and water sources are also causes of contamination.

Public water, which is only available to some households and even then only on every two to three days per week, is also contaminated. Only one-third of piped sources, and less than 25% of the 22 public rainwater tanks, were found to provide safe water after testing.

Tragically, Kiribati has the highest infant mortality rates in the Pacific, often linked to diarrhea, dysentery, and gastroenteritis from unsafe drinking water. 

For ChildFund Kiribati, working with communities to increase access to clean, safe drinking water and to improve sanitation, is an urgent priority.

Our current projects include installing solar power water distillation and purification equipment around Betio and the outer islands.  Additionally, ChildFund has distributed water and sanitation hygiene (WASH) kits to every household.

“Our team recently spent several days on Maiana to get feedback from the community and while locals are very grateful for the kits, they also shared their concerns about coping in emergencies and the impact the current drought is having on the supply of fresh water,” ChildFund Kiribati programs director David Kakiakia says.

The ChildFund team also distributes containers for safe water storage and works closely with the Betio Town Council on ongoing household water testing and community clean-ups, where staff and community members work together to remove rubbish from public areas.

Hand-washing stations have been installed at 19 community meeting places in Kiribati, many of which are preschools, and training is ongoing with preschool teachers about how water, sanitation and hygiene affect children.   

ChildFund’s ongoing work in Kiribati prioritizes water and sanitation education and training. This includes guidance on purification methods, safe water storage, and good hygiene practices such as washing drinking cups and bottles.

Our focus is keeping children and families healthy and safe from waterborne disease. ChildFund staff will continue to conduct household visits to increase awareness in families about unsafe water and the importance of good water quality.

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