Why tap water in Port Vila has been contaminated with poison of too much chlorine for decades, who is responsible, and what it will take to fix the problem
The three catchment areas under relatively new management and new protection legislation and regulation is on the way to Parliament. Red area is what closely surrounds the source of the town’s water. The arrow indicates the in-ground flow of the aquafer. According to the Government’s plans this situation – less illegal squatting settlers – will have to remain for up to 20 years. Photo credit: Department of Water Resources.
Why is drinking water in town befouled with a lot of chlorine? Is that toxic chemical at all needed in Port Vila’s drinking water? Has the natural fresh water aquifer been contaminated? Why so much chlorine?
According to the U.S. Council of Environmental Quality, “Cancer risk among people drinking chlorinated water is 93% higher than among those whose water does not contain chlorine.”
Why this is important?
Water is life. We could live without any other missing substance, but we cannot live without water. The humble H2O does remarkable things in our bodies. Our cells, all 35 trillion if them, are mostly water (60 – 80% depending on where and estimating for volume or weight). According to the American National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the recommended daily water intake should be: 3.7 liters (15 cups) for the average adult male and 2.7 liters (11 cups) for the average adult female. This of course includes the water in other drinks such as coffee, tea, juice, soft drinks and even fruit and vegetables. Substantially less water consumption than that can cause serious problems. To purchase that amount of bottled water in Vanuatu will cost more than the Vanuatu populations’ national average daily income.
The human body is an “electrical machine”. All vital bodily functions happen as a result of tiny electrical signals being sent between the various parts of your body and your brain. The signals are carried by electrolytes which is basically water with other elements dissolved into it. Take the life giving essence away and we are a heap of drying and rotting flesh and bones after a surprisingly short time.
‘Port Vila’s tap water used to be as clean as world-famous Perrier’
“Port Vila used to have fantastic water direct from out taps, but now it is commonly barely drinkable by being over-chlorinated,” said Karl Waldebäck, former Swedish Honorary Consul in Vanuatu, who in 1990 first negotiated, built and operated Vanuatu Brewing Ltd (formerly National Breweries Ltd) on behalf of a Sweden’s largest brewer.
“All the city water comes from a bore hole at Tagabe drawing from the naturally filtered ground water. For endless thousands of years rain in the interior has been passing through thick layers of coral and volcanic rock which filtered out anything bad and adding important mineral traces. I sent samples of the town’s tap water for analysis overseas and the results always came back with a clean bill of health, the testing looking similar to famous waters, like Perrier. Everyone was drinking it pumped pretty much direct from that bore-hole and it tasted great,” Mr. Waldebäck added.
During 1994 UNELCO was awarded the contract for the supply of water in Port Vila, no longer was Vanuatu Government’s Public Works direct responsible. At the time the Government increased its shareholding in UNELCO Vanuatu to 14.40%. As before the water is supplied through a pumping station and throughout the first decade the water did not noticeably deteriorate.
Who poisons water with too much chlorine?
Chlorine itself is relatively benign, and was created to help in keeping us free from infectious diarrheas, but it reacts with organic materials which is already dissolve in water, forming chemicals (known as DBP’s) that are over 100 times more toxic than chlorine. Consumed raw, these minerals and organic materials are essential for our wellbeing. People refer to it as “live water”. Recently an Arizona company, Zero Mass Water, in the US raised $24 million (Vatu 2,457 million) in venture capital to bottle and sell live water from a natural source. Another less serious operator is marketing Diet Water, “My weight was getting out of control with the regular stuff.” Sorry, the last statement was a joke – obviously there is no diet water, ordinary water has no calories. Most people take water serious and don’t fall for advertising such as the one below.
Distilled water is not as beneficial as natural live water and that is not just a whim or fad. Natural water contain many life-giving trace elements and energy which is tricky to add after processing.
While it is true that nearly everything conceivable that can make you sick can be found in contaminated water, in Port Vila there should not be any reason for bacteria, parasites etc. from the interior ground water in the aquafer, and if there are some minor contamination in the pumping process, just a little chlorine should be enough. According to the former general manager of UNELCO, the standard used to be one teaspoon for 1,000 liters of water, an amount that could not be tasted. Also, without a little benign contamination people will not build up their immune defense which eventually can wreck their health by later on inviting diseases such as allergies, asthma, eczema, hay fever and diabetes, but that is a different story.
Why are we poisoned with too much chlorine? Is there commercial interest behind?
“During the mid-1990 the first locally bottled water was introduced to Port Vila, Azure Water. It was something of a failure, didn’t sell much. People preferred the regular tap water. Then the unhappy little business changed hands one or two times. Sometime during the new millennium heavy chlorination of the town water supply started and the bottled water business “miraculously” picked up. Other local water bottlers entered the scene,” long resident Karl Waldebäck tells us how bottled water business in Vanuatu has emerged.
Now local bottled water is a huge business making a lot of profit for the owners. We don’t begrudge business to make a profit, but if it is by taking away poor people’s quality food and school money, not to mention endangering their health, then we are no longer happy. Do we have a water criminal poisoning us or just some dumb-ass not knowing the damage he/she is causing?
‘The chlorination will be regulated and monitored and most importantly the poisonous high chlorine contamination of the water will be eliminated, officials promised’
Port Vila should have one of the best tap waters in the world. In many cities large and small around the globe people who quench their thirst from the taps are drinking recycled toilet water with birth control drugs and traces of antibiotics in it, despite chlorination what is there necessary to control problems like E. coli bacteria, viruses, parasites and carcinogenic compounds. We should not have any of these contaminations to start with in our capital’s town.
Thanks to the new Department of Water Resources, replacing the old Department of Rural Water Supply and the Public works the problem has finally been constructively addressed. The chlorination will be regulated and monitored and most importantly the poisonous high chlorine contamination of the water will be eliminated, officials promised.
Incredibly nothing much were done until two years ago when the new department was established, headed by Director Ericson Sammy and hydro-geologist Eric Sami. They have with other been working on tackling the dangerous predicament. The director being on leave we talk to Mr. Sami.
Hundreds of illegal settlers to be moved from the water catchment areas
‘Groundwater at the catchment area has been polluted by illegal settlement. There has been an increased amount of traces of faecal matter in the water originating from those settlers and their animals’
– Why is there so much chlorine in the water, is the ground water infected?
“The aquafer, the flow of water from the interior is fine, but the groundwater at the catchment area has been polluted by illegal settlement. There has been an increased amount of traces of faecal matter in the water originating from those settlers and their animals. We are now aggressively working to rectify this and the slowly increasing amount of people settling in the catchment areas will be removed.”
‘The illegal settlers will be taken off, starting with the red area, then progressing to blue and finally to yellow. Hundreds will have to move. These areas will be fenced and any wrongdoing punished’
– How are you going to be able to police the changes – people don’t want to move and UNELCO is adding a lot of chlorine?
“New legislation has been drafted at the Law Office and will soon be presented to the parliament. The illegal settlers will be taken off, starting with the red area, then progressing to blue and finally to yellow. Hundreds will have to move. These areas will be fenced and any wrongdoing punished. The Department of Water published the Vanuatu’s National Drinking Water Quality Standards in 2016 and we are going to provide people everywhere with safe drinking water. As stated in the standards they have been prepared in consultation with the World Health Organization (WHO), and are consistent and stick to the WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. The Port Vila water supply will follow these standards and we will closely monitor UNELCO’s management of the water.”
‘Minister of land had done anything substantial with the water supply, didn’t understand the issue despite it being of outmost importance to the people. Those were the people responsible for the poisonous contamination of the Port Vila drinking water’
– Well, thank God something is being done, but who on earth let it get this far out of hand? Was it Public Works and UNELCO in Port Vila?
“Historically the Department of Rural Water Supply and Public Works was responsible for the water and in 1994 the management of Port Vila’s water supply went to UNELCO. They were looking after the day-to-day operations as presented to them, but they did not have the overall control of where the water came from. That was the responsibility of the Ministry of Land. We all know that land in Vanuatu is not easy but that was no excuse for forgetting half of their duties. The Ministry of Land is responsible for land and water. Water was no priority until Ralph Regenvanu was appointed Minister for Lands, until then no minister of land had done anything substantial with the water supply, didn’t understand the issue despite it being of outmost importance to the people. Those were the people responsible for the poisonous contamination of the Port Vila drinking water.”
It is not likely that UNELCO has been colluding or conspiring together with the bottled water industry, although we cannot rule out that an individual employee or two have been given an envelope now and then. The more plausible explanation for over-chlorination is the usual in these cases: to use too much chlorine as a precaution is not suable but to use too little and potentially cause sickness can be subject to legal action.
The culprit for the serious problem was not to be found at the basic level where workers just did their job without having any direct power to change things. It was the persons in charge who was to blame, in this case the Ministers of Land who had neglected half of their obligation, as well as the former Directors in charge of Water. If we had some dumb-asses not knowing the damage he/she is causing it was those people.
‘It is not likely that UNELCO has been colluding or conspiring together with the bottled water industry. Although we cannot rule out that an individual employee or two have been given an envelope now and then’
Hydro-geologist Mr. Sami continues. “Minister Regenvanu did understand that the important water management was neglected, had become a problem, and he was determined to do something about it. He understood that it had to be done with law and regulation, planning and everything had to make sense to fix the problem and with a growing population to look to the future.”
There was much to learn, and establishments such as the World Health Organization and World Vision was contacted. Eventually a local organization named Tagabe River Management Committee (TRMC) was formed to come up with a 10 – 20 year catchment area management plan.
The chairman of TRMC is the hydro-geologist Mr. Sami with representation from the departments of Agriculture, Environment, Fisheries, Lands, Public health and Water as well as, the Municipality of Port Vila, Shefa Province, UNELCO, Wan Smal Bag and World Vision.
‘With the illegal settlements removed we should not need to have any chlorine in the water at all. Like Fiji does not, Vanuatu could export its water calling it “The best in the world” and they would not be far of the mark’
The main task of this organization is to get the town water supply back to where it used to be, before people settled in the catchment area. With the illegal settlements removed we should not need to have any chlorine in the water at all. Like Fiji does not, Vanuatu could export its water calling it “The best in the world” and they would not be far of the mark.
But town is growing, and the pressure on the catchment area will be increasing steadily. The plan is to move the main bore hole to access the aquafer further inland, away from people and livestock. This is in the cards, but those cards will be pretty moldy by the time the new system is operational in 10 to 20 years.
Meanwhile people in Port Vila remain concerned. Local Levi Tarosa comments: “Your article is very important and I’m sure it will uncover some interesting facets of life and business surrounding water, the source of life. BUT, if nothing is done here, it could become a cause of (silent) death for Port Vila residents who drink UNELCO water. As someone who buys a lot of local bottled water, I (like many other customers) would love to know where they get their water from.”
That is a good question. We are paying from Vatu 100 to 500 per liter for the water in the picture below. Azure’s Vanuatu Natural is claimed to be distilled which is supposedly originating from cleaned up tap water and trace minerals added after taking everything out. Vanuatu Beverage’s Vanuatu Water is from Teuma River and naturally filtered by sand like sediments deposited thousands of years go – a good way of sourcing water. Others do not declare where they source their water so we must assume it is artesian water from the aquafer be it tap water or not. If the water carry a mineral analysis it is either natural or added.
There certainly are a lot of choices of bottled water in town – this is not all of them. A surprising amount are imported, a bit silly when we have such excellent water in the ground. Here we have Vanuatu water mingled with relatives from France, Australia and Fiji. Photo credit: Dorothy Tari
How to de-chlorinate your water
It will take years to rectify the current problem. But in the meantime all is not lost. You can collect and drink rain water – or you can de-chlorinate your own tap water. Charcoal filtering removes the chlorine but you have to change the filters every few months and it is a little expensive. A free method is to use the clear plastic bottles the water is sold in, fill it with chlorinated tap water and leave it uncapped in the open sun for half a day, but you must have the sun shining so if possible leave it longer. Its ultraviolet radiation breaks down the harmful chlorine and releases it into chlorine gas, but don’t sniff it. Chlorine gas was used first by the Germans in high concentrations during the WWI to kill the enemy. The symptoms are acute airway obstruction including wheezing, cough, chest tightness, and/or dyspnea, in concentration leading to death. Boiling the water also works and it takes 15 minutes of bubbling. For the affluent there are free standing atmospheric water generators (AWG). There are some AquaMakers around town – “generating clean water” from the air.
Incredibly but useful, according to the former UNELCO manager, should your area taste awful by having have excess chlorination (it can concentrate, especially at the more distant areas) you can ask UNELCO to come and open a street valve to drain away the poisonous water.
By Charlie Mayam exclusively for Vila Times