3 Jul 2013

Long-term water quality solutions to be mooted at Fiji meetings next week

5:42 pm on 3 July 2013

The principal climate change adviser to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community says a cost-benefit ratio needs to be worked out when assisting small islands with water quality.

Brian Dawson says water is a key issue in the Pacific, particularly when cyclones and other disasters strike.

Ahead of the Pacific Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Roundtable meetings in Fiji next week, he says long term reliance on high-energy solutions like de-salination units defeats the purpose of sustainable development.

Brian Dawson spoke to Alex Perrottet.

BRIAN DAWSON: It won't be just sea-level rise, it'll be a whole range of water, food security and even probably in some areas, weather-related issues like extreme weather events that cause economic losses and also potential dislocation of populations.

ALEX PERROTTET: Is it just appealing to the more developed countries to give donations and to help in these practical ways, or is there more to do with collaboration?

BD: To some extent, external assistance is required because they have very limited resources, but it also requires assistance by government in terms of how they manage the water, what priority they give to water-efficiency measures, community engagement. And it's a very difficult balance between how much can they do independently as a nation with limited resources and how much outside assistance is needed. If you look directly at something, say, a desalination plant, which is one potential option for actually supplying water resources, particularly drinking water, to the population, but it also is a very energy-intensive and quite expensive operation. So in my view it's predominantly a last-ditch effort. And it's unfortunate that, obviously rapid response for meeting emergency needs is a good thing, but reliance on this sort of technology in some ways defeats the whole purpose of becoming more efficient and sustainable. They're issues we need to face.

AP: Can there really be a leap-frogging of things like the desalination plant so these countries can quickly get to sustainable development solutions to the problems they're facing?

BD: Whatever you do and whatever investment you make, there's always, generally, a trade-off. In terms of energy dependency, the region is highly dependent on imported petroleum and for a lot of the small atoll countries it's 100% dependency. That absorbs a lot of their foreign exchange reserves and accounts, in some cases, for more than the total value of their exports. So we need to have a serious look at cost benefits. Is the most cost-effective means of making sure that all the taps on the island are actually not leaking? Proper state of repair, roof catchments are expanded and gutters are kept in repair - those sorts of lower-cost low-tech solutions potentially supplemented by things like desalination plants is probably the way to go. So I think it really requires a balance of both and there's no really clear-cut solution. But just going for high-tech, high capital cost, high energy-intensive solutions is not a sustainable approach to adopt for the future.