Kiribati’s devastating groundwater problem and how New Zealanders can help

Kiribati’s devastating groundwater problem and how New Zealanders can help

On World Water Day, ChildFund New Zealand Senior Technical Adviser Fiona Callen highlights the daily problems people living in Kiribati face with contaminated groundwater and the devastating consequences of this especially for babies and children. 

 For people living in Betio in Kiribati, shallow groundwater is the main source of water and it is at increasing threat from rising sea levels, high tides, storm surges and contamination from rubbish. Recent testing by ChildFund showed 73% of the 1,875 households that participated in our water quality testing programme had unsafe or likely-unsafe drinking water due to bacterial contamination.  

“The consequences of unsafe water supply are diarrhoea, dysentery and gastroenteritis, which is dangerous for children and vulnerable adults. In 2017, our research showed that 29% of children experienced diarrhoea in the two weeks preceding the survey,” Senior Technical Adviser Fiona Callen says. 

“Kiribati has the highest infant mortality rate in the Pacific region due to this.” 

Ground water in Kiribati is only 1 to 2 meters deep and is easily contaminated, particularly in densely populated areas like Betio, and when there is inadequate waste disposal, a significant problem in Kiribati. Inundation of land by seawater, human and livestock waste, and graves around houses and water sources are also causes of contamination. 

“People living in Kiribati are saying that the water tastes saltier every year,” Fiona says. 

In Kiribati, piped water is only available for a few hours per day every 2-3 days, it has the lowest proportion of households with access to piped or protected water in the Pacific. The pipes are old and leaky and easily contaminated. 

Kiribati has frequent droughts and inadequate storage facilities, like tanks, to collect sufficient rainwater. Most people don’t have iron roofs and cannot afford water tanks. Frequent droughts mean most water tanks would not provide sufficient water all year round.  

ChildFund has been working in Betio for about five years with the community and households to increase awareness about un-safe water and the importance of water quality. A key aspect is household visits where staff talk to families about water and train them how to purify water. 

The ChildFund team also distribute containers for safe water storage and work closely with the Betio Town Council on ongoing household water testing. 

Reducing groundwater contamination from rubbish is another focus and ChildFund organises quarterly clean-up campaigns where staff and community members work together. The team then work with Betio Town Council to remove the rubbish to landfill. 

Handwashing stations have been installed at 19 community meeting places in Kiribati, most of which have preschools. ChildFund has also trained 27 preschool teachers about how water, sanitation and hygiene affect children. Over 700 children have benefited, and many now have better handwashing habits at home because the teachers have taught them how to properly wash their hands.  

Other initiatives that ChildFund has been involved in include conducting research around alternatives to disposable nappies.  

World Water Day

World Water Day is celebrated globally on March 22nd. It is about appreciating water, learning more about it and reminding us that water is an important resource for us all but that many communities around the world struggle to access clean and safe water.   

This year’s World Water Day theme is Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible.  


Want to know more?

Read more stories about ChildFund's work in Kiribati here

Learn more about ChildFund's work with water here