Tall, red-bearded James Taylor, the project manager for contractors McConnell Dowell, has stubbed out his cigarette, and laughs. That feels about right, he grimaces.
Some tourists this winter may have felt they were short-changed on their beach holiday, with weeks when it rained every day. But it’s not enough. The rain hasn’t kept the streams full, and in July the island came close to a serious water shortage.
Now, we’re standing beneath a massive new stainless steel water tank, one of 11 built at intakes around the country. This big one holds 2.3 million litres. So will all 11 of these new tanks, combined with some smaller existing reservoirs, get us through the next dry spell?
Not even. At best, says Brent Manning, Rarotonga’s total 20 million litres of storage might last the island for two or three days, if the streams dry up.
That’s how much water the residents and tourists of Rarotonga use, or waste.
Manning, a former New Zealand army major, is now chief executive of To Tatou Vai Ltd – the government-owned water company charged with delivering safe water to every home in Rarotonga.
He’s probably the one who has borne the brunt of public and political concern about the project to roll out new water pipes around the island, and to treat water for delivery to every home on Rarotonga.
There were missteps: chlorine opponents’ discovery that contractors had already ordered a trial batch of chlorine for disinfecting water, and that Manning had put out a tender calling for a year’s supply – at the same time government was “consulting” with the public about how to disinfect the water.
And it gave real momentum to emerging opposition to chlorine – the perception the decision was a fait accompli, that it was to be forced down people’s throats, whether they liked it or not.
The story ran on the front page of Cook Islands News. And the next day, the Prime Minister called an urgent meeting and Manning was ordered to hold fire on his tender, until the decision on chlorination is formally signed off by Cabinet.
By most accounts, Manning got a rap over the knuckles. But it seems to have been a turning point – because one of the biggest problems was the lack of transparency in the roll-out of the water reticulation and treatment plans. And that changed, that very week.
The standard of openness from the Project Management Unit, GHD, Te Mato Vai and To Tatou Vai since then has been exemplary. They have discovered a very real understanding of the importance of actually talking to the community, and more important still, listening to them.
The Cabinet sign-off for chlorination still hasn’t happened – though to be blunt, it does still look rather like a fait accompli.
But now, these eight senior executives and engineers are taking the whole morning out from their no-doubt busy schedules to offer a guided tour to the Cook Islands News, and to outspoken chlorine opponents Justine Flanagan and Andy Kirkwood.
The chlorine sheds and tanks and rechargeable battery-powered pumps are already built and installed at each of the 10 intakes. And there is no Plan B. Anolyte, the favoured disinfection solution of the chattering classes, would require power to be run up the valleys to each of the 10 intakes – they’ve costed that at between $1 and $4 million, and then an ongoing power bill of $100,000 a year. Ozone, UV, none of these are seen as even half-viable solutions to a water reticulation challenge as complex as Rarotonga’s.
The thought, as some suggest, of not treating the water at all? Well, that brings a looks of barely-concealed terror to the eyes of the eight engineers and executives gathered up by the Turangi intake, in their work boots and hi-vis vests.
It is they (and their political masters) who will be accountable if the giardia and campylobacter and other nasties that sometimes infect Rarotonga water cause a mass outbreak of illness and death, as they do so often in so many nations.
To Tatou Vai board member Sam Napa Sr recalls three people being killed and many more suffering serious illness from drinking untreated water in Rarotonga’s biggest waterborne disease outbreak, in 1964.
The most recent World Health Organisation figures say waterborne illnesses are the world’s biggest killer, responsible for 2 million deaths a year. That is why the WHO and United Nations are pleading with the Cooks government to clean up the water supply.
In a 2017 report on the wellbeing of Cook Islands children, UNICEF says that to meet the criteria for a safely-managed drinking water service, the water source should be accessible in families’ homes, it should be available when needed, and it should be free from contamination. “A lack of basic sanitation, hygiene and safe drinking water has been shown to contribute to the spread of water-related diseases (including diarrhoea), which are in turn a significant cause of under-5 child mortality in the Pacific region.”
And it expresses concern that the Rarotonga water supply experiences shortages during drought conditions, “which appear to be occurring more frequently”.
Tangianau Taoro is deputy project manager at the government’s Project Management Unit, overseeing big projects like sewage treatment for Muri and beyond; the roll-out of the new water pipes around Rarotonga, and working with To Tatou Vai to set in place treated water to every home and business.
She’s stepped into some big shoes – and quite literally. Taoro is last to arrive, as we gather on Are Metua by the old palace at Turangi. She gets out of her silver 4WD, grabs a hi-vis vest and hard hat from the back, and changes from her elegant shimmering sandals into a pair of robust grey trainers for the trip up to the intake.
Taoro seems to be the conscience of this team; deeply embedded in the community, she knows everyone and cares about them. She doesn’t rush; her words are considered. It is she who leads us in prayer, before we get into the pickups for the trip up to the Turangi valley.
She too remembers some of the shortages of past years. “In the last major drought, myself and my family had to bathe in the sea.”
But the impacts of water shortages are more serious than having to take the odd dip in the lagoon. The problems of water shortages and of deciding how we disinfect our water are intrinsically linked.
As Taoro and I pick our away on stepping stones across the stream to get to the new Turangi intake, high up the valley, we talk.
Vividly-coloured butterflies and moths rise from the long grass in their hundreds, surrounding us with the gentle brush of their wings.
Amid such beautiful surrounds, the intake itself is somewhat underwhelming. A small concrete weir funnels the water over a wedge-wire grill. Some of the water drops through the grill into a pipe; the rest continues down the stream to the valley below.
The reason the intake is so high up the valley is because this system has no power supply to pump the water; it is entirely reliant on gravity. A 50-metre gives the water the momentum to push it through the two big 200 cubic metre concrete flocculation vats, in which polyaluminium chloride causes dirt and other nasties to cling together and drop to the bottom.
Then, further down the hill, it siphon through two ingenious 5-metre tall sand filters that, without any electricity or human input, can flush themselves of any debris when it starts building up.
If those two processes are working – the flocculation and the sand filter – then it should take out 99 per cent of the dirt and giardia and campylobacter.
Finally the calcium hypochlorite solution is added, to deal to the last one per cent – mostly microscopic viruses.
And then the water will run down the pipes and into our homes and plantations.
But there is a new and emerging concern about keeping the new water supply safe – just one more challenge that will keep Taoro and Manning awake at night.
Manning has discovered that in many places on the island, when water pressure in the mains is low, contaminated water is sucked back into pipes and redistributed to other households. The low pressure happens regularly in a number of places on the island, especially around the airport, and the problem gets worse when water is short.
He gives the example of pig farmers leaving hoses dribbling into dirty troughs; when there’s negative pressures, the trough water gets siphoned back into the public water system. “And then you’re drinking that s***,” mutters one of the engineers.
They’re only now starting to understand the extent of this risk. The contractors are fixing leaky pipes and pulling hoses out of pig troughs where they can. “But the public health risk profile here is very high,” Manning says, “a lot higher than I’ve ever seen.”
The bad news is that however clean the treated water is that they send down the brand-new pipes from the intakes next year, it doesn’t address the pig trough scenario. And the only thing that will address that is the residual disinfection of the remaining 2 or 3 parts per million of our old friend, chlorine.
Justine Flanagan and Andy Kirkwood join us on the trip up to the Turangi intake. If Taoro and others are the conscience of the government, anxious to put in place water treatment to protect our children from illness and death, then Kirkwood and Flanagan are the passionate drivers behind the anti-chlorine lobby.
The concerns that Taoro and the doctors and scientists have about the threat posed by the likes of giardia and campylobacter – this Avana couple hold the same concerns about chlorine and any other treatment chemicals added to our drinking water.
This newspaper was critical of the couple when, in the early days, they issued a spurious and indeed scurrilous statement claiming chlorine caused a 93 per cent increase in the risk of cancer – it was unfounded, and risked scaring people away from a water disinfection tool that is likely to save the lives of Cook Islands children
But that was then, this is now. The couple have researched intensively, and listened to their community. And while they are still opposed to chlorine, they are making very sure it is a well-informed opposition – and their questions up here at the intake today are good ones, smart ones.
And while every other person up at the intake in our hi-ves vests is being paid to be here, Flanagan and Kirkwood are doing it on their own time; they are committed to informing their community about these water treatment and sanitation projects.
This is just one of four meetings Kirkwood attends this week, about water treatment or sanitation. I email him afterwards with one question, and he comes back full of ideas.
To Tatou Vai contractor Ross Dillon had mentioned that the stream clears three hours after rain, up at the Turangi intake, Kirkwood recalls.
“Discolouration of the water is due mainly to organics and tannins – leaf litter,” he says. “I’m now thinking that there is less ‘soil’ washing into the waterways than I had anticipated.
“Vetiver plantings above the intakes would be very effective at preventing leaf litter from directly washing into the stream and enable settling out of finer material and infiltration of surface waters – before reaching the intake pipe.
And the kicker? “Microorganisms that live in the root system also remove pathogens.”
He’s got more ideas. What about, instead of using polyaluminium chloride in the flocculation tanks, they were to create organic coagulants: vetiver pontoons, moringa seed, and water lettuce – all these plants are already available on the island.
And on our site visit, perhaps for the first time, Manning offers Kirkwood and Flanagan an olive leaf. It would need government sign-off he says – but what is to happen to the 36 existing drinking water stations dotted around the island?
What if, once the buckets of chlorine are tipped into the tanks to disinfect out tap water, some of those water stations are fitted with charcoal filters to remove the last remnants of chlorine?
(Bear in mind, the chlorine dissipates as it works its way down the pipes from the intake, doing its purification job, so there’s actually very little left by the time it gets to our house).
If some of the water stations were fitted with charcoal filters, that would provide an option for those who do not want chlorine in their drinking water – while still protecting our poorest and most vulnerable children from serious waterborne illnesses.
It’s the end of the visit, and we gather around under the shadow of the 2.3 million litre water tank for a last chat before Tangi closed in prayer.
After all the shouting and vitriol of the past few months, there is a real sense that everyone is listening to each other in search of real solutions.
Kirkwood acknowledges the care and expertise of the engineers and builders from the Project Management Unit and GHD and McConnell Dowell. But there’s a caveat.
“Here on the island, we worry,” he says.
“When the experts who know how to work this system disappear, when you go back to New Zealand or wherever, will we have the skills here on the island to run it?”