Solutions in nature: sounds too simplistic?

By Declan Hearne, International WaterCentre

Reframing solutions for nature: what’s really required on World Water Day

In Daru, Western Province of Papua New Guinea, the environment is straining under human footprint and lack of planned development. A low lying island original protected by mangroves, the current day foreshore rubbish has replaced the trees. Water resources on the island are brackish by nature, so fresh water is pumped from the mainland 25 km away. But the mains pipes have been broken since January. Increase flows of floodwater are reported to be a contributing factor to the damaged pipes.

With no mains water, rainwater and brackish, well water are the substitutes. There are five schools in the town of Daru. Three have been closed by health departments because they were unsanitary due to lack of water. Yet, this morning on #worldwaterday, Live and Learn had arranged a march with participation from all five schools. The official theme was nature for water, the unofficial call was we need functional WASH services in all schools.

The local manager from Water PNG showed leadership by coming out in front of the community and acknowledged their shortcomings. With mains water disrupted since January, tensions are high in the local community and the General Manager admitted he was concerned about joining any public activity. Still, he came forward to outline their challenges and his hopes for getting 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.” The tone is a familiar one but one of his root challenges is connected with today’s Water Day theme, ‘solutions in nature’. As long as the water supply remains dependant on a singular engineered solution, water security will remain a high risk in Daru. The mains pipe broke because of floodwaters, which were stronger because the mangroves are gone.

Appreciating the value of water

A recent JICA report cast doubt on groundwater presenting an easy alternative. The saline content is too high. Ultimately it will be a mixed solution. One that taps groundwater for household hygiene needs. Rainwater and the piped mains could be prioritised for drinking water. Fixing the pipe will require investment from the central and local government, coupled with a willingness to pay by the local community. This will require a shift in norms, in usage patterns, and a better appreciation of the value of water. Then, there is the need for a multi-sectoral effort to understand how altering mangroves has effected flood flows. Finally, the ageing pipeline will still need to be replaced. That is part of the solution. Nature, floods, understanding of hazards, and deep assessment of alternative sources will all need to be considered.

Take away lessons for me are two-fold — firstly when we look for the solutions in nature we need to consider multi-dimensional solutions. The Asian Water Development Outlook, published by the ADB, presents a framework for water security that considers five key dimensions. The application of such frameworks can help partitioners think through the role of environment, hazards, and other factors that affect water security

Secondly is the role of leaders. In Daru, the general manager showed the courage to turn up and speak out. He could have easily hidden behind the ‘too busy’ excuse. As a sector, we need to find ways to better support local leaders to find the best-fit solutions to complex water challenges. This is not just technical skills but the skill to be able to influence. To communicate a shared direction and seek alignment and commitment from all key stakeholders.

Today I take my hat off to General Manager of PNG Water in Daru.

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