Tue, Nov 16, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Pacific islands face drowning in heaps of discarded trash

THE GUARDIAN , SYDNEY

Once famed for their white-sand beaches, the islands of the Pacific are threatened by a waste mountain. Rubbish now clogs streams flowing into the harbor in Samoa's capital Apia, and floats through the mangrove forests of Fiji.

Every part of the region is affected. And one of the biggest battles in many island societies, say experts, is raising awareness of the problem.

Traditional waste disposal in the Pacific consisted of throwing food scraps to pigs, but swelling populations and the import of foreign goods have changed the makeup of domestic rubbish.

"The waste of yesterday was mostly natural," said Asterio Takesey, director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Program.

"Now that many islands have entered the modern economy their consumption pattern has changed," he said.

The problems are worst in the low-lying atoll countries of Micronesia.

"Rubbish is piling up," said Ritia Bakineti, who works in waste management for Kiribati's branch of the program.

Kiribati's capital South Tarawa is the most crowded corner of the Pacific, with nearly 40,000 people on a string of coral islets stretching for nearly 32km miles along the southern fringe of the atoll.

The most crowded islet, Betio, is more densely populated than Tokyo.

South Tarawa's households generate up to 6,500 tonnes of waste every year and its three landfill sites cannot cope.

A report in 2000 found that only one of the dump sites was protected by a sea wall, meaning that rubbish from the others gets swept out to sea and along Tarawa's beaches when high tides inundate the land.

Ritia Bakineti says that it does not need the tide to dump rubbish into the water.

"For households it's quite normal to push the rubbish out into the ocean or the lagoon," she said.

The effects are already tangible. Testing in the mid-1990s showed such high levels of pollution in Tarawa's lagoon that locals are now told not to eat raw shellfish from it.

There are also worries about contaminants from landfill sites leaching into Tarawa's fragile groundwater supplies.

Fresh water on atolls is pumped from the water lens, a narrow layer of rainwater floating on top of seawater seeping into the porous coral rock of the island.

This resource is easily exhausted or tainted, and in recent years Kiribati's health department has declared several wells unfit for use.

But Kiribati's problems are insignificant compared with compared to those of neighboring Tuvalu, a country whose total land area is less than a third of that of Tarawa.

One recent report estimated that the 4,000 people living on the 2.4km2 capital islet of Fongafale generate around 20,000m3 of waste per year.

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