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Collaborative effort to harness volcanic aquifers for sustainable water solutions in the Pacific

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Recognising the need to tackle critical water management challenges for the region’s growing development needs and rising demand, three Pacific Island countries are teaming up to develop an innovative and sustainable solution to ensure access to clean water for their populations.

In the Pacific, groundwater is mostly extracted from shallow coastal aquifers, which are easier to access for those in densely populated coastal areas. However, groundwater, abundant in volcanic aquifers, remains underutilised and poorly understood. Reliance on volcanic aquifers is likely to increase as rainfall and surface water sources become more variable and less predictable with climate change.

A project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), under GEF 7 and implemented in partnership between the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Pacific Community (SPC) is looking at the potential of mostly untapped volcanic aquifers to contribute to the socio-economic development needs of Pacific countries. The Enhancing water-food security and climate resilience in volcanic island countries of the Pacific project will be implemented in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

This project aims to demonstrate the potential of developing volcanic aquifers to enhance water and food security, improve climate resilience, sustain ecosystem services, and alleviate pressures on over-exploited coastal aquifers.

This will be accomplished by assessing and expanding the role of volcanic aquifers, implementing effective groundwater governance frameworks, addressing priority issues through demonstration pilots, and strengthening institutional capacity.

An important consideration for this project as stakeholders gather in Suva for the project’s inception workshop is how the application of holistic and evidence-based approaches are ensured to safeguard sustainability.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, the Permanent Secretary for the Fiji Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, Sivendra Michael (PhD), emphasise the evolving challenges of water supply management.   

Our islands have been able to host our societies for centuries due to natural freshwater availability and the natural aquifers that have been important for supporting life on land within the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. Urbanisation, population growth, deforestation, unsustainable land and water use, and climate change have changed water dynamics on our islands, and any impact on this critical resource is of concern to our societies,” said PS Michael.

He added, “Groundwater, although abundant in volcanic islands, is increasingly at risk from contamination and overexploitation. It is my hope that this project, which will support important efforts in Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands will also help us to share knowledge and best practices between our island nations recognising the similar challenges and threats we face.”

The Acting Director General for the Vanuatu Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, Erickson Sammy, highlighted the unique challenges faced by Vanuatu in ensuring water security.

"Despite abundant rainfall, the challenging topography means that perennial streams are rare, with significant watercourses found mainly on the largest islands," said Mr Sammy.

He also emphasised the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, stating, "Vanuatu is notably vulnerable to natural disasters such as droughts, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and volcanic activity, all of which impact water and food security."

On the topic of tourism and its impact on water resources, Mr Sammy mentioned, "Tourism is a growing sector, supported by the same water resources as the local population. Groundwater plays a crucial role, especially in urban areas, yet comprehensive assessments of these resources remain limited."

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Highlighting the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Island Countries, the SPC Geoscience, Energy and Maritime (GEM) Division Deputy Director for Disaster and Community Resilience Programme, Exsley Taloiburi, emphasised the small size, remote location, and high vulnerability to climate change and disaster risks that characterise the region.

"These factors collectively contribute to significant environmental degradation, affecting both the land and water resources essential for sustaining livelihoods."

"The development challenge before us is the lack of comprehensive knowledge about the status and potential of volcanic aquifers in the Pacific,” said Mr. Taloiburi

He added, “This knowledge gap hampers the sustainable development and governance of these vital water resources. The project aims to address this by expanding our understanding of these aquifers, promoting their sustainable exploitation, and integrating groundwater management into national policies."

The two-day project inception workshop was held in Suva, Fiji, from Thursday 6 – Friday 7 June.

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Fiji

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