When a village dependent on the day's ocean catch resorts to a diet of canned fish, there must be something going wrong in the sea. Fortunately, residents of Vunisinu village in Rewa Province, Fiji, who are so used to having lobsters or prawns everyday, to the envy of inland folks who would offer much for a fresh seafood dinner, have saved themselves from such a calamity.
Some years ago, Vunisinu's daily catch began to decline steeply, causing great alarm and disbelief among the villagers. Their once inexhaustible sources of seafood, the sea and the mangroves , were running out of supply.
"We rely mainly on our catch from the sea and rivers to survive and we need them to be protected", says Sailasa Vatucawaqa, the village chief. "There is no other reliable source of income for us here in Rewa".
The turning point was a workshop facilitated by the government and nongovernment organizations in 2003 that opened villagers' eyes to the connection between waste disposal methods and the environment, which consequently affect their livelihoods.
"It was only when we went on a field trip to see the dying coral reef that I realized that the depletion of our fisheries is also caused by leaks from our toilets, waste from our piggeries, and our grey water (household wastewater)", said Pita Vatucawaqa, Sailasa's brother, who attended the workshop.
Prompt actions of Vunisinu's 36 families - from completely banning the dumping of trash in streams, mangroves, and the ocean to building compost heaps and constructing compost toilets - helped avert what would have been an environmental disaster in Fiji.
Vunisinu village is about 45 kilometers from the capital city of Suva in Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. One of the many settlements on the fringes of the vast Rewa River delta in this Pacific Island nation, Vunisinu boasts of one of the richest traditional fishing grounds, or what locals call 'qoliqoli'. From the mangrove swamps and nearby brackish waters, villagers harvest delicacies such as 'moci' (prawns), 'qari' (mud crabs), and 'mana' (mud lobsters), which fetch premium prices at local and international markets.
Using small nets and fishing lines, Vunisinu villagers also catch a variety of fish from the sea. One can also just literally pick up seafood such as lobsters and octopuses from the shallow reefs.
But improper solid waste and wastewater disposal and mangrove clearing started to take their toll on the environment. Many villagers dumped rubbish indiscriminately into the mangroves and the sea. Waste seepage from pit toilets and piggeries flowed directly into the mangroves, sea, and reefs. Sailasa also recalled that their fishing grounds were plundered by poachers who use dynamites, nets with very fine mesh that capture even the smallest of fish, and 'duva', a poisoned root that kills all small fish and surrounding corals.
It was a miracle that Vunisinu's bountiful ecology endured all these.
Clean waters program
Armed with new knowledge, Vunisinu villagers embarked on a concerted effort to clean up their act, beginning in October 2003, when the International Waters Project (IWP) was launched in the village. A five-year program funded by the Global Environment Facility, the IWP was implemented by the United Nations Development Programme and executed by the South Pacific Regional Environment Program. Its aim was to achieve sustainably managed and effectively conserved coastal and marine resources in the Pacific Islands region by addressing the root causes of their degradation.
Vunisinu villagers were among those who were trained on how to protect their vital freshwater resources, including drinking water. Food waste is no longer dumped in the sea but reused as fertilizer, and a private company, Enviroclean, has been contracted to take care of the trash. Enviroclean provides huge waste bins in which all the villagers dump their non-biodegradable garbage.
"The village pays US$95 a month to Enviroclean", Sailasa explained. "At the end of the month, they come around to collect it so the rubbish is properly dumped off at nearby Naboro landfill. They have also encouraged recycling in the village".
Pita Vatucawaqa, meanwhile, was intrigued about sewage composting after realizing how his children and grandchildren will be affected by the waste. A practical hands-on training workshop on compost toilet construction - a project that was part of a regional initiative by the Pacific Islands Applied Geosciences Commission, the Fiji Ministry of Health, World Health Organization, and the Fiji School of Medicine - provided Pita with the technical know-how.
After participating in the workshop, Pita designed and built a composting toilet on a raised seat over a bin that can be wheeled out and replaced when full. The composting process continues even inside full bins, and a family of 6 can use a bin for 6 months before it needs to be replaced.
Coconut husks and a screen mesh at the bottom of these bins act as filter of solid wastes, while the wastewater is drained into a small 'wetland' bordered with cement blocks, lined with plastic, rocks, and soil, and in which flowering plants are grown. PVC piping is used as vents for odor control. People visiting the toilet are surprised by the lack of smell and flies.
"Having compost toilets is a huge benefit because one doesn't have to worry about leakages as with pit toilets so there is no concern about sewage washing away into rivers and other waterways", says Pita. "With pit toilets, naturally everything would wash away into the rivers and seas. But with compost toilets, all the waste is packed in right till the time it needs to be disposed".
However, lack of funds prevented the compost pit project from taking off in Vunisinu. Only three out of the 86 households in the village have compost toilets. "The lack of funds is a hindrance in our attempts to carry on with this worthy project. But we will definitely push for all the houses to have compost toilets", Pita laments.
More fish in the sea
Not long after adopting these environment-friendly practices, the villagers started noticing their impact on their daily lives. "The villagers are following the rules that were laid down because they are reaping the benefits. Everything is much cleaner now", Sailasa said.
The return of the fish stocks has been helped by the establishment of a protected marine area, where fishing is banned for certain periods of time.
"We have seen the benefits since these projects were set up", says Sailasa. "There is a lot more fish now compared to when dumping in the seas and rivers was prevalent".