Poor Water Supply and Sanitation Impose High Costs on Kiribati - Report

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – Inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene in South Tarawa, Kiribati’s main urban center, have been estimated to impose economic costs of between A$3.7- $7.3 million per year, equivalent to 2-4% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2013, according to a new report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The Economic Costs of Inadequate Water and Sanitation report is intended as a guide to inform the design of much needed reforms to improve water and sanitation services and boost sustainable urban development in Kiribati.

South Tarawa’s population of around 50,000 lives on an area of just over 15 square kilometers. As a low-lying atoll, there are limited freshwater resources, which are easily contaminated because of the high water table and soil characteristics.  Kiribati is also highly vulnerable to effects of climate change.

Residents receive piped water for only two hours every two days because of high leakage from the system and limited freshwater supplies. Poorly functioning sanitation systems and sanitation practices among the local population contribute to pollution of groundwater and the surrounding marine environment.

“Kiribati has among the highest rates of infant mortality in the Pacific region, which is partly linked to water-borne disease,” said ADB Pacific Urban Development Specialist Allison Woodruff. Health officials report an average of three outbreaks of acute diarrheal disease in South Tarawa every year. Poor housing conditions and overcrowding also contribute to the spread of disease.

While it was not possible to quantify environmental and tourism costs in dollar terms, health costs alone were found to be substantial, equivalent to between A$553-$A1,083 per household in South Tarawa. The study shows that vulnerable groups have the most to gain from improvements, as they are more likely to suffer from illnesses including diarrhea and dysentery.

The report notes there are public and private dimensions to the challenge of reducing the economic burden of poor water and sanitation services. The Government of Kiribati can play a key role in addressing these challenges through higher levels of investment and better cost recovery in the delivery of water and sanitation services and implementing education and awareness programs to promote better understanding of the links between water, sanitation, hygiene, and health.

An integrated approach with simultaneous improvements in water supply and sanitation infrastructure, hygiene behavior, water storage practices at the household and village levels can have the greatest impact, the report says.