22 Jan 2019

A 'disaster' - Cook Islands water project faces uncertain future

7:52 pm on 22 January 2019

Touted as the first tripartite aid project in the Pacific involving China, Te Mato Vai was meant to be about working together.

But, as a costly spat over the massive overhaul of the Cook Islands' water supply system reveals, it's been anything but.

Te Mato Vai piping

Te Mato Vai piping Photo: Courtesy of Cook Islands Infrastructure

The initial price tag for the project has blown out by $US20 million. Repairs to alleged shoddy work will cost millions more.

And with the Chinese construction company responsible at odds with the Cook Islands government, the future of Te Mato Vai is unclear.

"This must be one of the biggest disasters in our country," said Tina Browne, leader of the opposition, the Cook Islands Democratic Party.

Te Mato Vai, a three-phase plan to provide a safe public water supply in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, is the country's most ambitious infrastructure project in decades.

China, through the state-owned Exim Bank, is providing a soft loan of around $US16 million for the first stage, which was built by the China Civil Engineering and Construction Company (CCECC). New Zealand has committed $US10 million in grant aid for the second stage, which has yet to commence.

The first warning signs came in November, when the Cook Islands government said the estimated costs for Te Mato Vai had gone up to $US60 million, from $US40 million.

The next month, it said 17 kilometres of pipeline needed replacing, after an independent review it had commissioned found concerns with the workmanship.

"They [CCECC] were contracted to deliver a project of a certain design and standard and we believe based on the evidence that they haven't delivered," said Garth Henderson, finance secretary at the Ministry of Financial and Economic Management.

The review was commissioned after a leak was discovered in one of the pipes, he said in an interview this week.

Mr Henderson said the company has refused to accept liability for the necessary repairs, which are estimated to cost nearly $US9 million. Remedy work will start in June, with the government targetting the completion of phase one by the end of the year.

New Zealand has said it's happy for some of its regular development assistance - specifically, the $US9 million earmarked for asset maintenance over the next three years - to be used on the repairs.

Contractors work on the Te Mato Vai water project in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Contractors work on the Te Mato Vai water project in Rarotonga, Cook Islands Photo: Phillipa Webb / Cook Islands News

Last week, project manager Gao Dong told the Cook Islands News the request to replace 17km of pipeline was "inappropriate" and a misinterpretation of the report commissioned by the government.

"The pipeline as is, has been built and tested, approved, paid for and accepted as completed," he told the newspaper.

"It is ready for service and all tests done to date show that the pipeline is serviceable as required by the contract."

The Cook Islands government said in December it was seeking legal advice ahead of possible legal action against CCECC.

The government had also raised its concerns at regular meetings on Te Mato Vai with the New Zealand government and the Chinese embassy in New Zealand, Mr Henderson said.

Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program at Australian thinktank the Lowy Institute, said a resolution to the dispute had been complicated by differing approaches to aid infrastructure by New Zealand and China.

"When things do go sideways, it does also make it harder to respond."

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