FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Affordability and Sustainability

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Affordability and Sustainability

FHTA, 27 July 2023 – Visitors probably won’t believe it when they first get into the country, but drinking water from a tap is pretty normal in Fiji, as this potable water is considered safe to drink. And while many local residents have happily drunk water straight out of the taps for many years; where you are located has some significance on the accessibility to potable water, how often your service might get interrupted and whether your water really is potable or readily drinkable.

It is a funny conundrum of sorts when you consider the country is blessed with natural beauty that produces an abundance of freshwater sources from bubbling streams, waterfalls and mighty river systems, to vast underground aquafers that have helped catapult brand Fiji as a global leader in quality bottled water; and yet its population has faced decades of water accessibility challenges.

Conundrum turns to confusion and bewilderment when thousands of households, schools and businesses consistently face water cuts, and yet in the middle of weeks of rainy weather, water cuts get blamed on inadequate dam levels because rain is not taking place where it matters.

The increasing water demand brought on by inadequate, long-term infrastructure planning, growing industries, and urban development that infrastructure has not kept pace with, coupled with climate change-induced disruptions; poses a significant threat to the sustainability of this vital resource.

Conserving, managing and effective long-term water resource strategies is perhaps one of Fiji’s most debated and critical of challenges. Discussed daily from the furthest islands in the Lau Group, around grog basins and during cocktails throughout residential suburbs regardless of whether they consist of affluent households or over- populated settlements, to the rural areas we rely so heavily on for our fresh produce.

We have been talking, begging, writing submissions and complaining about our water woes for a very, very long time.

Has anyone heard the country’s collective pleas to improve accessibility, supply and no-less critical – addressing of over-burdened waste management systems?

Apparently yes. The responsibility and focus to deliver these on the Water Authority of Fiji (WAF) plays a central role in managing and distributing water across the country, as well as ensuring wastewater services are more effectively addressed.

Wastewater issues might not be something most people give any thought to – if you take a shower or use the toilet, you expect once done that the waste you send on its merry way, becomes someone else’s responsibility. Wastewater refers to all effluent from a household, commercial establishments and institutions, hospitals, industries, and so on. It also includes stormwater and urban runoff, agricultural, horticultural, and aquaculture effluent.

Sewage is also wastewater. It is wastewater originating from toilets and bathroom fixtures, bathing, laundry, kitchen sinks, cleaners, and similar dirty water that is produced in households and public places. If these systems clog up or stop anywhere along the journey to where they get properly treated before the waste is broken down to be safely allowed to enter waterways or be used as fertiliser, or get so polluted by the addition of used cooking or industrial oils, greases and other substances that the treatment process is slowed or completely halted, then a process that should run automatically at a reasonable pace must be attended to as an emergency with already limited personnel being diverted from other projects to address the issue.

This puts the waiting process for other projects like new water connections, sorting meters, plumbing issues, new infrastructure plans and construction on hold. This happens far too often perhaps because there is very little awareness on how this works, coupled with insufficient mitigative penalties.

The magnitude of the challenge we have in the water sector requires over $500 million to replace the 40-year-old pipe system that is leaking around 50% of precious water underground before anything arrives in our taps. And with revenue already having to be spread around thinly to meet other key infrastructure needs, this year the long-term planning has kicked off with more earnest having being allocated $250.8m to manage priority areas. Because they have to start somewhere.

One of these was to recognise that the water sector is not meeting the supply and demand needs through a series of planned dialogue sessions with key stakeholders, to understand the main challenges and develop the Water Sector Strategy 2050.

Not another strategy I hear you groan. But look at it this way. We need a strategy that we as stakeholders (like tourism and other industries) can contribute to (because we know where our relevant industries are headed in the short- and long-term future), we support efforts to convince Government and interested development partners to commit to funding and we – yes, all of us in Fiji, hold the Water Authority accountable to deliver on this strategy.

This means we work WITH them on ensuring these strategies are deliverable by consulting as often as necessary to discuss your specific issues; whether these are for more reliable and safe supplies that are consistent, or to ensure we can access more environmentally friendly, waste management services. And standing in line to complain or hurl abuse at them does not work for anyone.

Does this mean we agree we should be paying more for better-quality water and wastewater services? Absolutely; because the private sector would not think twice about delivering the best standards for products and services that we would charge for accordingly – so why should it be different for the supply of a commodity we often take for granted? If you use a service that you demand must be great, you should be prepared to pay for it. In this way, the supplier can address challenges, attract a skilled workforce, and be more operationally viable so that it does not rely so heavily on Government grants that must in turn be generated out of higher taxes imposed on the private sector and in some form of shape, on the general population whether they realise or not.

Where does that leave domestic users then? Currently, far too many people are accessing free water with absolutely no qualms about wasting copious amounts while their other fellow citizens do without consistent or any supplies at all. Those that have to pay, are charged are at the world’s lowest tariffs of 15 cents per 1,000litres, many of whom don’t even bother to pay, and that includes many commercial businesses and training institutions that take advantage of poor police coverage in these areas – but what a cringe-fest it would be if that list were to be made public.

Earlier this week, WAF hosted a Water Sector Customer Forum to engage in meaningful discussions regarding water management and service delivery in Fiji – part of earlier efforts to keep engaging with their stakeholders.

This collaborative approach enables the exchange of ideas, expertise, and perspectives, fostering a collective effort towards enhancing water management practices. The Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) always welcomes the opportunities to provide its input – it is a collective voice after all for its wide and many segmented industries and does not stop at just providing recommendations, but also provides insight into industry trends, plans and existing challenges. Water woes have been on our “hit list” for almost a decade. The accommodation sector’s limited expansion rate has been due to several issues and access to potable water in areas with historical supply challenges and wastewater services that are either not already at capacity or breaching environmental regulations have been key reasons.

Severe weather events, such as cyclones and droughts also disrupt water supplies, resulting in damage to the already-aged infrastructure. To bolster climate resilience, WAF needs to invest in infrastructure improvements, including the adoption of innovative technologies and practices that mitigate the impact of climate-related disruptions.

Access to clean water and improved sanitation facilities are vital components of sustainable development and are intrinsically linked to health, education, and economic growth. To meet these goals, WAF must overcome financial limitations to enhance water service delivery and ensure equitable access to water for all Fijians.

But it must also recognise that it is time to speak openly about its operational challenges with the people of Fiji and to create better awareness of just why we must all be part of the solution. To understand why we must save water, support efforts to make people more self-sufficient with rainwater collection and agree to pay a fairer tariff to access improved services so that they can undertake essential and extremely expensive capital projects.

Higher water rates should act as an incentive for consumers to use water more judiciously, promoting water conservation and reducing wastage – that is the preferred outcome at any rate. Encouraging responsible water usage through price signals not only helps mitigate water scarcity but also aligns with broader environmental sustainability goals. But we might also consider reducing tariffs as incentives for water conservation, recycling and storage efforts.

Clean water and sanitation is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 6 and Fiji is highly likely to miss achieving this global 2030 goal if we do not change our current business-as-usual approach.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 27 July 2023)