Len Toi is happy to be in Rarotonga. The health protection officer from Aitutaki says it’s good to leave the bone-dry outer island for a decent shower.
Toi has spent the past week at a workshop on Rarotonga learning about rainwater harvesting – something that might one day help fill his water tanks back home.
“Last week we were showering with a bucket of water. I showered like that on Monday morning and then left for Rarotonga in the afternoon, and then I got here and had a 20-minute shower. I love coming here.”
Toi has three water tanks in Aitutaki’s Nikaupara, but all are running off the mains supply. It makes no sense, he says – when the island’s half-dozen water intakes dry up, so do his tanks.
“Our house is not built to collect rainwater because there’s only flat roofing on the house. I was scratching my head about that even before I came to this course,” he says with frustration in his voice.
He and his wife are thinking about building a new house. One thing’s for sure, that house will have sloped roofing, guttering on both sides and a nice big water tank. A water tank designed to collect rainwater.
Aitutaki is one of several outer islands facing major water shortages right now, and rationing is in place. Toi says that if his tanks could collect water, at least he’d be able to fill them when it does rain.
After attending the World Health Organisation (WHO) training this week, Toi says he’s armed with knowledge to help himself and his people.
“This course is a real eye-opener. My wife and I are in the process of looking at building, so this gives us things to think about – like how much water we can expect to collect from a certain sized roof. I can leave here with new knowledge.”
Matt Molloy, director of operations for Environmental Health Consulting NZ Ltd, has been running the workshop this week, teaching Cook Islands environmental health staff how to harvest rainwater for drinking and how to do so safely.
It’s not just about putting in an effective system – guttering, downpipes, a filter, pump and tank – it’s also about keeping those components clean to prevent contamination, he stresses. Mice, bird droppings, dust and tree leaves are just some of the potential hazards.
Molloy, who was running the course on behalf of the WHO, says his goal is to train health officers so they can then teach their communities about rainwater harvesting.
“They’re going to become advocates to go out and give people advice and promote key messages of water safety,” he said.
Toi is now one of those advocates.
“Doing this course brings out a whole lot of things to take back home, like how to set up a tank properly.”
Many people in Aitutaki have water tanks but they’re not using them properly, Toi says. Most only have guttering on one side of the house – meaning they potentially miss out on hundreds of litres of fresh water whenever it rains.
He says most would never think to clean their roofs, guttering or tanks, but he wants to change that.
Rarotonga resident Gustav Tatuaua installed a water tank at his Tupapa home about three years ago, but admits he’s not cleaned it once.
Instead, he drains the tank every six to eight months and uses filters to clean the water before he drinks it. Tatuaua knows he should get in and wash his tank out every year, but says he “has too many things to do”.
“I’m supposed to maintain it but I don’t,” he admits.
He says his parents and all the elders told him he should get a tank. “I was the first one in my area.”
Having a water tank is a huge help because it can be filled by rainwater or the mains supply, he says. When it rains, he switches off the mains and fills his tank up naturally.
Tatuaua thinks other people are starting to realise they should be collecting rainwater too, rather than just relying on the mains supply.
Water problems are only going to worsen in the Cook Islands over the coming years as the effects of climate change take their toll, Molloy says.
“Climate change will lead to longer periods of drought, more intense rainfall and more severe storms.”
Accordingly, Cook Islanders need to start planning for long-term water solutions such as rainwater harvesting, he says.
Toi says he can’t understand why many people don’t have water tanks – or why most of those who do are only connected to the mains supply, meaning water pours off the roof and onto the ground whenever it rains. It probably comes down to finances for many people, he says.
Although a subsidy has so far encouraged about 700 people to install water tanks, many of those same people have not fitted guttering and downpipes.
Molloy wants to see people in Rarotonga take that extra step and build a rainwater collection system. “There’s no reason why they can’t convert their tanks to rainwater.”
While both the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Planning have said they encourage people to collect rainwater in their tanks, Molloy hopes the government might come through and encourage people to do that with financial support.
At the end of the day, many people can afford to set up a rainwater harvesting system but “their priorities are in other places”, Toi says.
“Our people are so used to relying on the mains when we should be finding ways of using rainwater falling off the roof. People don’t like changes but you still have to make them. And later on, you’ll realise it was for good.”