Asylum Seekers Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink
By Debra JopsonSeptember 27, 2012
What happens when one of the world’s most water-deprived nations suddenly gets a huge increase in its population? Nobody’s promising that Australia will improve access to clean water for Nauruans just because it’s taking the burden of Australia’s refugee processing.
Recent rain has brought pockets of greenery to Nauru, but these shroud one of the grimmer truths about the island to which Australia is sending at least 1,500 asylum seekers.
Nauru is chronically short of clean water. Drought strikes Nauru on average once every five years, and lasts a median of 19 months. And tainted groundwater is already making some of its citizens so sick that the country's diarrhoea incidence rate is twice that of other Pacific Island nations.
Even though they have tapped into their greatest water resource — the sea — Nauruans are not in a great position to harvest enough for themselves during times of drought, let alone for thousands of asylum seekers and camp support staff.
When the next big dry hits, Nauru will need 10 times more drinking water than its desalination plants currently produce, the latest research has shown. Drought could come any time.
The world's smallest independent nation has no meteorology service to predict its arrival, but an internal Nauru Government report warns: "Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme events."
This report, documenting the most extensive audit ever of its resources and rainfall, from the 1949-1951 drought to the latest, which ended in August 2009, reveals that Australia is setting up its latest refugee camps in one of the world's most water-deprived nations.
Given that most of its groundwater is polluted, Nauru lives precariously, as drought brings hardship and rain brings floods dangerous to health. It relies on rainwater tanks — many in a state of disrepair — and desalination plants which are costly and difficult to run, the draft National Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Implementation Plan reveals.
Nauruans want the sick and the young to be the first to get water when it is scarce, but that does not always happen.
"The high priority hospital, dialysis clinic and schools frequently run short of safe, potable water and there is no system for supplying high priority water consumers," the Nauru Department of Commerce, Industry and Environment has warned in its draft plan.
That was the position before Australia began to swamp the island with asylum seekers and all the personnel needed to house and service them.
Over past weeks, the department has had to revise its report, which was drafted to go before Nauru's cabinet as a step in fixing the country's already perilously dry position. Now the department is urging local decision-makers to consider how the country's water supply might cope with the massive influx of people.
"The refugee processing centre must not be an impost on water supplies to Nauruans," it warns, without spelling out what Australia must provide to ensure that.
And further: "The decision to reopen the refugee processing centre on Nauru means an increase in the volume of sewage produced. It is important that sewage systems used there do not degrade land or groundwater."
Professor of water resources at the Australian National University, Ian White, who is advising the Nauruan department, told The Global Mail: "They face some of the most difficult issues in the world."
During his last visit to the island three weeks ago, White was told by a Nauruan government official with whom he works closely that Australian representatives have advised there will be 3,000 asylum seekers, not the 1,500 announced so far, and that they will be housed in three camps, not just two.
"Three thousand people is a 30 per cent increase in the [island's] population and it's a major impact. It means if there are droughts, and even in non-drought, they have to have a better harvesting system for water and to make sure that sanitation doesn't add to the pollution," White says.
This is on an equatorial island so poor that many of its almost 10,000 inhabitants cannot afford bottled water, and so riven with health problems that a Nauruan male can only expect to live to 55.2 years, and a female to 57.1 years. The average household is home to more than six people.
Nauruans have estimated that to achieve a properly functioning water supply system for themselves, and to service the refugee camps adequately, they need $40 million worth of infrastructure. Their needs include increased storage, a piped water system, and more desalination plants. Professor White says Australia should cough up for this infrastructure.
The Australian Government is keeping mum about how it will provide water to its processing centres. When contacted by The Global Mail, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen's office would only say: "The Immigration Department is working on appropriate water supply solutions to ensure the facilities are self-sufficient."
But Professor White says that Australia has told Nauru that it will install further desalination plants and supply the diesel to run them.
"The problem is, the current desalination plants consume one-third of Nauru's power bills, and in drought they need to double that consumption at least," he says.
Never mind that desalination plants are not eco-friendly.
"Once you have desalinated the water, you have to get rid of reject brine, the concentrated saltwater, and [in Nauru] they usually run it over the reef. It's not good for the reef," says White.
Nauru is an ancient, 22-square-kilometre coral atoll, a volcanic plug in the middle of an ocean that falls rapidly away from its coastline to a depth of 4.3 km.
This is no balmy tropical paradise, but an island which, according to the Nauru environment department report experiences "severe variability of annual rainfall" as it is buffeted by the twin forces of El Niño and, being 46 km south of the equator, the sea-surface temperatures of the dry zone.
"This strong coupling leads to frequent severe droughts in Nauru when sea surface temperatures are cooler," the report explains.
The Australian government has indicated that asylum-seekers it sends to the camps which it intends to build to replace the current hastily erected tent city, will stay for up to five years. In which case, any long-term inmate is likely to experience drought during their time on Nauru.
The last drought ended just over three years ago, Nauru government figures show. They also reveal that during a late 1980s drought, only 23 millimetres of rain fell in any six-month period.
"In normal years, they have plenty of rain, so they oscillate between having too much water and too little water," White says. Dry times means three tankers criss-crossing the island distributing expensive desalinated water; wet seasons, an increase in the incidence of diarrhoea as contaminated groundwater rises to the surface.
In July, Haseldon Buraman, Nauru's National Integrated Water Resources Management co-ordinator, was interviewed on Radio Australia and described his nation's water situation as "very awkward".
"The only natural water supply is on the end of groundwater, but [it is] very limited due to high contamination of faecal and other e-coli. And the other problem is that we are heavily reliant on these diesel powered or energy-consuming reverse-osmosis [desalination units] that actually produce our drinking water," he said.
He recalled that in the three-year drought of 1998-2000, when a thermal energy plant went out of service, Nauru was left with no water supply.
The island now draws water from three main reverse-osmosis desalination units that can produce about 360 kilolitres per day between them, but in July Buraman expressed concerns about their reliability during the next drought.
"If you're going to rely on reverse-osmosis, what happens if those machines break down, or there's no fuel for them?" he said.
Of the island's three main desalination plants, only two are now operating and both of those are producing potable water at only half their capacity, the draft report reveals.
The people of Nauru are relying on about 1,000 rainwater tanks, but a survey found that almost one-quarter of these need to be replaced or fixed, and during a drought they can only supply drinking water for 22 days. Then it's over to the desalination plants.
Jill Finnane, who lobbies on Pacific water issues as the eco justice coordinator for Sydney's Edmund Rice Centre, says operating desalination plants is tricky.
"Unless they work continuously, they don't work at all. They're very complex little bodies... These things are not simple. Who does the maintenance? It's an expert job and not like just sweeping out the leaves in the guttering," she says.
Phil Glendenning, the new president of the Refugee Council of Australia, says: "Nauru is one of the most broken places I've ever been in my life. When I was there, the water was off 9am to 5pm."
That meant, in the Menen Hotel, which has its own desalination plant, that he could not flush the toilet, which he says was "pretty gross".
On Nauru, waste water, untreated sewage, and septic sludge are piped directly out to sea. While seawater was once used to flush many toilets, that system no longer works. Another system using desalinated water is either partially or completely blocked, the Nauru environment department found.
The island has 1,000 cesspits, dug to around two metres deep, but most have no lining at the base.
"They present a significant threat to groundwater quality and human health, especially in heavy rain when groundwater in the low-lying coastal plain rises to the surface," the department's report says.
The toilet block was the first place that Topside Camp occupants took Father Jim Carty, co-ordinator of the Sydney-based Marist Asylum Seekers and Refugee Service, when he visited Nauru 10 years ago, during the Howard Government era.
"When I got there, the water wasn't flowing, because it was only turned on two hours a day, and the toilets were full, literally," he says.
He cannot help thinking that there is a connection between these unsanitary conditions and the profound obsessive-compulsive disorder, focused around water and cleanliness, which an Iraqi refugee woman now living in Sydney acquired during four years spent on Nauru with her husband and two children.
"She would not go to the ablutions block, so her husband would cart water to her donga [demountable accommodation]. At home in Australia, she is using 12 litres of liquid soap a week. She washes the whole place down. If people come, it is washed again," he says.
"They eat using plastic spoons and forks and paper plates and they are immediately put into a plastic bag and thrown out... One child is showing similar symptoms. The husband is beside himself because the wife is so demanding."
Nauruans, meanwhile, have adapted, Professor White says.
"They are marvellously laid back, and they really have coped, over 3,000 or 4,000 years, with difficult conditions... But when things get tough, they do get quite bolshie."
Local community representatives have insisted on being included in water management discussions, he says.
Professor White is totally opposed to the Australian Government's offshore processing policies because he believes the magnitude of the problem has been exaggerated.
But on the ground in Nauru, he has found community restlessness over the way past politicians squandered the island's phosphate wealth.
"There is still discontent about the fact the Government let them down… They've gone from being very wealthy to very poor," he says.
Because Nauru has no building code, development agencies have "got away with murder" in their designs, Professor White says.
Australia could change all that if it committed to world's best practice in providing rainwater harvesting for its camps, rather than relying on desalination, he believes.
After all, Nauru is being a friend to Australia, he says.
"The department is investigating utility and infrastructure-capability solutions to ensure the centre in Nauru is self-sufficient and minimises the impact on the current supplies on Nauru," Bowen's office says.
However, Glendenning expresses the belief that, "What the Nauruans need is partnership in development, not partnership in punishment."
During Professor White's latest visit to the island, he witnessed a daily display of Australia's might and wealth, spent in its own interest. "What was astounding was to see these giant C17s [military transport aircraft] arrive every day, and twice on Sunday, and to see them disgorge things like whole sewage-treatment plants. The amount of money they are spending is amazing."
If such resources were directed beyond the camps, they could potentially supply Nauruans with the clean water and green power they need, he says.
"In an ideal world, because Australia is asking Nauru to add this burden, I believe it should look at improving conditions for Nauruans. In an ideal world, it would be an opportunity to increase aid to Nauru and assist with their problems.
"But it's not an ideal world."
Read more of our coverage of eco-politics, where access to water is dramatically reshaping local politics: the bitter disputes around the Australia's most contentious river; the logistical nightmare that is a large-scale attempt at capturing rainwater in India; and the dire condition of the mighty Mississippi.