Development, Social policy, Health | The Pacific

3 April 2015

Papua New Guinea’s new water and sanitation policy is a good start on a big problem.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has some of the worst indicators for access to safe water and sanitation in the world. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization / UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program, only 40 per cent of the population has access to safe water, and only 20 per cent have access to safe sanitation.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the country ranks at the bottom of Pacific countries for all Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) related health statistics.

WASH related deaths in the country are estimated at over 6,000 a year: in part through a re-emergency of cholera in PNG in 2009 after an absence of 50 years. And as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade pointed out recently, throughout the world lack of access to clean water and safe sanitation has a disproportionate impact on women and girls: in Papua New Guinea this compounds a situation of already-pronounced gender inequality.

But steps are now underway to begin to address this situation. In February this year, the Minister for National Planning and Monitoring the Hon. Charles Abel MP launched the country’s first national WASH policy. The policy aims to provide a framework to substantially improve access to water and sanitation services and change hygiene behaviours, particularly in the under-served rural and peri-urban settlement areas.  It sets ambitious targets to be reached by 2030, and estimates that capital and recurrent spending of about $US120 million a year will be needed to meet them.

The policy recognises the multiplicity of government agencies, donors, private enterprises and NGOs that will have to play a part in implementation, and proposes to create a new authority to provide sector coordination and leadership. It also recognises the need to promote affordable and sustainable technologies: no easy task given PNG’s daunting geographical challenges and the complex mosaic of community attitudes and determinants of WASH behavior in the country.

A WASH education program in Papua New Guinea. Image by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

A WASH education program in Papua New Guinea. Image by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

PNG is a difficult and expensive place to deliver water and sanitation infrastructure, and like many parts of the Pacific, it is not renowned for having a strong maintenance culture. Stakeholders will have to do a lot of experimentation to find solutions that work and to adapt them to the particular circumstances of individual communities.

The policy also lays out a set of principles to guide service delivery, which among other things stress the need for participatory approaches to planning; endorse a long term commitment to hygiene promotion and communication as opposed to one-off efforts focusing on hygiene education; and call for integration of sustainability planning into all programs. The policy also delineates appropriate charging and subsidisation policies that differentiate between water and sanitation services and infrastructure; and offers guidance on the often-vexed issue of land use agreements and compensation. The policy envisages an enhanced engagement with the private and non-government sector, but recognises the efforts that will have to be put into building capacity all along the supply chain. Finally, the policy stresses the importance of information systems to monitor performance and guide implementation.

The policy has the potential to deliver real gains for the people of PNG, and its endorsement by the Government signals a previously absent political commitment to doing something.  But the test will lie in what the policy achieves rather than what it says – and making real inroads into the country’s poor WASH status will require real determination and a long-term commitment.

There will be significant hurdles to be overcome to implement the policy: the devil lies in the detail, and in WASH the detail is complex, especially given the physical, technological, institutional, budgetary and behavioural challenges that rolling out access to and use of improved water and sanitation must confront.  Supporting the effort seems to be a logical area for thoughtful support from Australia’s aid program.

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