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Unpacking the Water Sector in the Pacific Islands

September 28, 2022

By Milika Sobey

(photo: Dave Hebblethwaite / SPC)

In a region of water abundance, why don’t people have clean, safe water? In the Pacific Islands, only 55 percent of people have access to basic drinking water, and just 30 percent have sanitation services—the lowest rate in the world. Papua New Guinea was recently ranked second worst among the 10 countries with the lowest access to water. The other nine countries are on the African continent.

Land area and water availability vary widely among the Pacific Island countries (PICs). The higher islands of Melanesia account for 98 percent of the total land area of the PICs and have significant sources of ground and surface water, but the smaller volcanic and limestone islands and atolls of Polynesia and Micronesia have smaller catchments, shallow aquifers, and inadequate water storage. Lack of water and the accompanying sanitation and hygiene issues continue to plague the PICs. To plot a way forward, we need to understand the contributing factors.

In collaboration with the Australian Water Partnership (AWP), The Asia Foundation recently released Political Economy of Water Management and Community Perceptions in Pacific Island Countries, a study that unpacks the political economy of the water sector in the PICs. Using key-informant interviews and a public perceptions survey, our research sought to understand the current socioeconomic status of the PICs, the status of water resource management (WRM), and the differences in WRM among the political economies of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. We also looked at what development partners have done to strengthen WRM, the opportunities and challenges they have identified, and how the agency of individual communities can be strengthened.

The approach

The research team adopted a “thinking and working politically” approach, looking at the political context and the role of individuals and agencies in 14 countries and considering how both formal and informal institutions shape WRM programs.

Operational issues, implementing organizations, and the role of politics in the delivery of water services were all part of the analysis. We also conducted a perceptions survey in Fiji’s Nadi River basin to identify community needs and expectations and how these could be addressed more effectively by formal institutions and organizations.


Unsurprisingly, the research found significant differences in the political economies of water use and management across the PICs, due to the different political contexts, different institutional frameworks, different actors, and the realities of natural disasters that wreak havoc in the region. These differences need to be considered by development partners contemplating WRM interventions.

In the larger Melanesian countries like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, provincial governments exercise some WRM authority, while Samoa follows a Westminster model mixed with traditional governance such as the village fono system. The Federated States of Micronesia has a federal system that provides substantial state autonomy. With the exception of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which has a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, and Tonga, which was never colonized, all PICs follow the government system used by their former colonial rulers.

Waiting with containers for a water truck in Lami town, Fiji (photo: Jonacani Lalakobau / Fiji Times)

As important as government ministries, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and formal legislation and policies are to WRM, equally important are informal institutions. In rural communities of the PICs, where many of the WRM issues are most acute, leadership positions are linked to the church, the school, the community, or cultural bodies such as the House of Ariki in the Cook Islands and the Council of Chiefs in Palau. In most PICs, more than 50 percent of the land is under customary ownership. To gain access to land and water resources for the provision of water services, the state must often negotiate with the traditional owners. The power dynamics at this informal or cultural level are as important to successful WRM interventions as the powers of the state.

The cast of characters in the water sector can be quite extensive. Fiji, for instance, has eight government ministries involved in water and sanitation services, with overlapping policies and regulations that can obscure responsibilities and accountability. Samoa, assessed by UN-Water as having made the most progress of any PIC towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 in 2017–2020, has attributed its success to the governance structure of its water sector. Samoa has an apex body, the Joint Water Sector Steering Committee, in which the roles and responsibilities of each member are clearly defined.

The role of donors

The Asian Development Bank has funded a large number of infrastructure projects for the improvement of water and sanitation services across the region. The challenge now lies in maintaining and expanding that infrastructure to accommodate urbanization and growing demand. To achieve this, the SOEs that provide these services must be economically viable entities. This will continue to be a challenge in many PICs because of the state’s reluctance to raise rates for fear of reprisal at the ballot box.

The Global Environment Fund (GEF) has implemented two large regional projects on integrated water resource management (IWRM) and Ridge-to-Reef management. The IWRM projects helped local communities improve their water and sanitation services through community-scale projects that adopted the “community to cabinet” approach, in which building local capacity to implement IWRM projects “trickled up” to new government policymaking. Both GEF projects funded postgraduate certificates for project personnel, a measure that has now built a cadre of water professionals in the region.

Strength in community

Communities need to build stronger coalitions among themselves to have a voice in dealing with SOEs and service delivery.

The communities that were studied in the Nadi River basin rely on an aging piped water supply, boreholes, wells, creeks, and water rationing. Those outside the SOE service area often form informal coalitions to collect water in communal tanks and monitor its quality. Six hot spots were identified in the Nadi River basin that need reservoirs and pumps because some communities only have water delivery once every two weeks.

The resilience of these communities confronting an irregular water supply is admirable. They have learned to manage their water consumption according to the supply and to tap alternative sources during periods of drought. Sadly, the majority of the PICs in our study appear unlikely to achieve SDG6 by 2030. Until every government in the region makes WRM a national development priority, the region will continue to lag in the basic human rights of adequate water and sanitation.

The research discussed here will be used to inform and shape the Australian Water Partnership’s continuing engagement in the Pacific region. The report can also be used as a resource by organizations working on water resource management in the region, and is available on AWP’s publications webpage.

Read the report, Political Economy of Water Management and Community Perceptions in Pacific Island Countries.

Milika Sobey is the program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Pacific Islands office. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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