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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Local control of water supply / Papua New Guinea.

Posted By: Mali Voi
Date: Tuesday, 25 April 2000, at 12:57 p.m.

In Response To: Local and private control of water provision / Tanzania. (+franšais) (Sibylle Riedmiller)

I read with interest the article by Sibylle Riedmiller and I would like to describe a situation in the Aroma Coast, Papua New Guinea, and then discuss some general conclusions.

In 1959, when the local government system was introduced in an area called Marshall Lagoon District, Central Province, Papua New Guinea, it was decided to improve village water wells as the traditional water wells were accessible to other animals, in the main bandicoots, snakes and rats. The Marshall Lagoon Council provided large concrete pipes and sank them in the ground as protected wells for 10 villages at the Aroma Coast. My small village, consisting then of about 6 families with some 40 people, at first welcomed this improvement initiative. The well was located on the Village Councillor's land. Previously the two traditional wells were located on our land, and the wells were used and maintained by the families. The Councillor shut our wells down and insisted that we use the Council's well. So our wells were buried.

The Councillor was a Seventh Day Adventist. So he introduced a rule that the village could not use the Council's water well on his family's Sabbath (from 6.00 pm on Friday until 6.00 pm Saturday). The well was kept locked during this time. Since our wells had been buried, we had to go to the next village, about a mile away, to fetch water (women and children carried buckets of water on foot) during those times.

The other families of the village called a meeting regarding this issue, but when their concerns were put to the Councillor, they fell on deaf ears. When the matter was sent to Kupiano, Marshall Lagoon, the Headquarters of the District, the plea was also ignored.

The five families decided to construct their own wells. Fulfilling the Council's requirements to construct modern wells, they used similar materials (concrete pipes) and re-opened the buried wells. They received threats from the Councillor for disturbing the public peace...dividing the families. The villagers took their case to the District Headquarters at Kupiano and Port Moresby. They were granted the right to keep their wells. The management of the wells remains in the hands of the 5 families, as it had been before. The village has since grown to over 120 people most of whom live away from the village, but from time to time they return home. To this day, they still have the two original wells. All the decisions and the management of the wells are vested in the village and the village system of government. The wells are theirs... this is the bottom line. More than that, they have assisted each other in the construction of rain catchment tanks for drinking water. No amount of political interference from outside, nor an offer of donor money to change their village system, would be accepted unless they could see themselves as principal stakeholders of the wells.

Now, returning to Sibylle Riedmiller's article, there are three basic issues:

1. Ownership and control. In a simple village, as that described above, ownership and control must be in the hands of the users. In a larger, and more complex, centrally provided water system, whether publicly or privately owned and controlled, a 'user pays policy'is necessary. One pays for what one uses, consumes or wastes. Whatever the ownership structure, water should be available and affordable to all people.

2. Public accountability. Whether publicly or privately owned, the availability and safety of water is in everyone's interest. In the case of the small village described above, neither the Councillor nor the Council System were publicly accountable until the small people decided that they had enough.

3. Internalizing development locally. There is an important, indirect note in Sibylle Riedmiller's contribution concerning modern governments, NGO's and aid agencies. They must ensure that they take into account the existing social, cultural and political infrastructures in third world countries when designing projects to bring about development or change in the lives of people. Unless development is internalized locally, the moment the developer or change agent leaves, the project usually lapses...we have read and seen many cases where this has happened and should strive not to repeat the same.

Overall I appreciated the article from Sibylle Riedmiller very much, and hope that those who wish to help the third world people develop, do not, in the process of facilitating development, help themselves as beneficiaries.

Mali Voi. UNESCO Cultural Adviser for the Pacific.

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