December 11, 2019

Pacific Island countries lag behind the rest of the world in terms of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) services.

Often, their governments’ ability to effectively manage WaSH is constrained by the countries’ small size, geographical isolation, environmental fragility, predominantly rural — but rapidly urbanizing — populations, and limited human and financial resource bases. Many of these countries face significant challenges from a changing climate, including related extreme weather events like tropical storms, droughts, heavy rainfalls and flooding, as well as rising sea levels. Due to their locations in the Ring of Fire, Pacific Island countries are also prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

Dr. Carmen Anthonj

Dr. Carmen Anthonj

Carmen Anthonj, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Water Institute, recently completed a project titled, “WaSH Sector Monitoring in Pacific Island Countries.” The project was funded by UNICEF Pacific and implemented in close collaboration with the Governments and Ministries of Health of Fiji, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. The Water Institute’s collaboration with UNICEF Pacific aimed to strengthen national WaSH sector monitoring and implementation as part of achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

From the beginning, inequalities in access to adequate water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management were a dominant focus for the project. Data collection, analysis and reporting on WaSH in 2,600 urban and rural households, 1,174 schools and 218 health care facilities — as well as related consultation workshops and trainings conducted with government representatives and stakeholders — revealed urban-rural inequalities of WaSH in households. Researchers also found inequalities in WaSH across different provinces, different school types in the Solomon Islands, and different types of health care facilities in Fiji and Kiribati.

Weather- and climate-related results showed that domestic sanitation infrastructure is especially vulnerable under extreme rainfall scenarios such as flooding and drought, which are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity in coming years. Infrastructure vulnerability and low adaptability will likely lead to increased health risks, as well. An analysis of disaster preparedness and response in the context of the 2016 Tropical Cyclone — the most severe storm to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere to date — showed that health care facilities in Fiji are not sufficiently prepared to respond to a potentially increased burden of disease during and after extreme weather events.

Ultimately, Anthonj’s project underlined the need to understand and contextualize water, sanitation and hygiene and related SDG 6 indicators (“by 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation”) with other the other SDGs. She proposes that progress in WaSH should be linked to SDG 3 on human health, SDG 13 on climate action, SDG 10 on reducing inequalities, SDG 9 on resilient infrastructure, and SDG 17 on partnerships and collaboration.

So far, the Water Institute/UNICEF Pacific collaboration has resulted in five government reports and two peer-reviewed publications, and data analysis is ongoing. Members of the Institute continue to hold discussions with governmental and non-governmental WaSH sector stakeholders to inform the implementation of national and international strategies and policies, programming and resource allocation to reduce inequalities and improve climate-resilient WaSH services.

The publications include “Urban and rural sanitation and hygiene in the Solomon Islands: resilient to extreme weather events?,” published online September 15, and “Geographical inequalities in drinking water in the Solomon Islands,” published online November 14, both by Science of the Total Environment.

Other contributors from the Water Institute at the Gillings School include Lisa Fleming, MS, (co-first author with Anthonj); Musa Manga, PhD; Katherine F. Shields, MPH; Emma Kelly; Wren Tracy, MHS; Ryan Cronk, PhD; Jamie Bartram, PhD; Amy Guo, MS; Darcy Anderson; and Lydia Abebe.

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