Political economy of water sector in Pacific Island Countries

By Milika Sobey, The Asia Foundation

In a region of water abundance, why can’t people access clean, safe water? In the Pacific Islands, only 55% of people have access to basic drinking water and 30% to sanitation services, with the latter being the lowest rate of access in the world. Papua New Guinea was recently ranked second worst in the world’s top ten countries with populations having the lowest access to water. The other nine countries are on the African continent (The Water Gap – The State of the World’s Water 2018 – World | ReliefWeb). Although land area and water availability vary widely among the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), with the higher islands of Melanesia accounting for 98% of the PICs’ total land area and access to significant sources of ground and surface water, the smaller volcanic and limestone islands and atolls of Polynesia and Micronesia have smaller catchments, shallow aquifers and water storage challenges. The lack of access to water and the accompanying sanitation and hygiene issues continue to plague the PICs so there is a need to understand the contributing factors in order to plot a way forward.

With this question in mind, The Asia Foundation in partnership with The Australian Water Partnership, recently released a study that unpacks the political economy of the water sector in Pacific Island Counties. Conducted via key-informant interviews and a public perceptions survey, our research sought to understand the current socio-economic status of the PICs, the current status of water resource management (WRM), and whether there are any significant differences in water use and management across the political economies of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. We also looked at what development partners have done to strengthen WRM and the opportunities and challenges they have identified and lastly, how the role of communities in WRM can be strengthened.

The approach

The team adopted the “thinking and working politically” approach to this research and looked at the political context, the water resources sector and the role of individuals and agencies in WRM in 14 countries across Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.  We looked at both formal and informal institutions (rules of the game) that shape WRM programs in-country.

Operational issues and the role of politics in the success of service delivery in the water sector, the implementing organisations and the role they play in politically informed programming were all part of the analysis. There was also a community perceptions survey conducted in Nadi Catchment communities to determine community needs and expectations of water use and management in the Nadi catchment and how these could be addressed more effectively by formal institutions and organisations.


Unsurprisingly, the key finding of the research is that there are significant differences in the political economies of water use and management across the PICs.

These significant differences are due to the differences in political context, the institutional frameworks they operate within, the actors, and the realities of natural disasters that wreak havoc in the region. In the larger Melanesian countries like PNG and Solomon Islands, there are provincial governments that have some WRM decision-making powers while Samoa follows a Westminster model with a mix of traditional governance as seen with the village fono system. FSM has a federal system with the states being autonomous.  With the exception of RMI, which has a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, and Tonga (who was never colonised) all PICs follow the government system used by former colonial rulers.

At least 6 of the 14 countries in the study had separate offices for the head of state and head of government while 4 countries in Micronesia combine the two offices. These different forms of formal governance need to be considered when responding to requests for support or for proposing WRM interventions. In the rural communities of the PICs where many of the WRM issues persist, leadership positions are linked to cultural bodies such as the House of Ariki in the Cook Islands and Council of Chiefs in Palau, the church, school or community.

As important as government ministries, State Owned Enterprises (SOE), legislation and policies are to WRM, equally important in the cultural domain are informal institutions such as land tenure – in most PICs, more than 50% of the land is under customary ownership.   The state needs to negotiate with the traditional owners to access land and water sources for the provision of water services. Understanding the power dynamics at the informal or cultural level is as important in determining successful WRM interventions as understanding those at the state level.

The cast of actors in the water sector is extensive in some countries. For instance, Fiji has 8 Government ministries involved in the provision of water and sanitation services and numerous policies and regulations that overlap and can sometimes act to dilute responsibilities and accountabilities.  Samoa, assessed by UN-Water as having made the most progress of all PICS from 2017-2020 towards achieving SDG6, has attributed their success to the governance structure of their water sector.  They have an apex body, the Joint Water Sector Steering Committee (JWSSC), that makes decisions concerning the water sector and where the roles and responsibilities of each member is clearly defined.

Donors’ roles

Asian Development Bank has funded a large number of infrastructure projects for the improvement of water and sanitation services across the region. The challenge now lies in the maintenance and expansion of the infrastructure to cater for urbanization and the subsequent increase in demand.  To ensure the sustainable operation and maintenance of water reticulation systems, SOEs that provide the services need to operate as commercially viable entities. This will continue to be a challenge in many PICs because of state’s reluctance to increase charging rates for fear of reprisal at the ballot box. The cost of supply services is largely borne by the government rather than by the consumers.

The Global Environment Fund (GEF) has implemented two large regional projects on Integrated water resource management (IWRM) and Ridge to Reef management. The IWRM project empowered local communities to improve their water and sanitation services through community scale projects that adopted the Community to Cabinet approach and the “Doing is by seeing” approach. The latter approach strengthened the capacity of communities to implement IWRM projects and to secure further funding assistance. It also led to government WRM policy formulation.  Both GEF projects funded postgraduate certificates for the project personnel that has built a cadre of water professionals in the region.

Strength in community

Communities need to build stronger coalitions amongst themselves to have a voice in dealing with SOEs and service delivery. The communities that were studied in Nadi Catchment are dependent on piped water supply (which is impacted by the ageing infrastructure), boreholes, wells, creeks and water rationing.  Those outside the area serviced by the SOE can form informal coalitions for the collection and storage of water in communal tanks and the monitoring of water quality.  There were six hot spots identified in Nadi catchment that need reservoirs and pumps as some of these communities only have water cartage once every two weeks.

The resilience of these communities in the face of such an irregular supply of water is commendable.  They have learnt to manage their water consumption according to the supply and to tap alternative sources of water during periods of drought.  Sadly, the political economy analysis of water use and management in the region leads to the conclusion that the majority of the PICs in this study will not achieve SDG6 by 2030. This means that until every government in the region makes WRM a priority in their national development agenda, the region will continue to lag in the provision of basic human rights of access to water and sanitation.

The research will be used to inform and shape AWP’s current and future engagement in the Pacific region. The report can also be used as a resource by organisations working on water resource management in the region and is available on AWP’s Publications webpage.

Image: Dave Hebblethwaite / SPC
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