Three people were killed and many more got seriously ill from drinking untreated water in Rarotonga’s biggest waterborne disease outbreak, a local water expert says.
Sam Napa Sr, who has been involved in the local water system for decades, says the deaths were in 1964, caused by the failure to properly disinfect a new water pipeline before it was put to use.
Napa says a subsequent inquiry identified the cause of the outbreak as the failure to properly “flush and disinfect” the new pipeline with chlorine, prior to releasing water to consumers.
Since then, chlorination had been used to safely disinfected water several times:
· The Vaima water plant, built by Sam Napa’s older brother Harry, used chlorine and UV disinfection;
· The water supply from Takuvaine water intake to service the old Raro factory and its neighbourhood was filtered and chlorinated, Sam Napa Sr said;
· Most imported soft drinks, beer and fruit juice were made with chlorinated water.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown backed Napa’s concerns. “Sam Napa is one of our foremost experts on our water system,” Brown said last night.
“He has a long history and formidable institutional knowledge in this particular field. He has been directly involved in water works from more than 50 years ago. That is one of the reasons why he is on the To Tatou Vai board. I support his comments fully.”
In a letter to Cook Islands News, Napa said he clearly recalled the new pipeline being laid from from Betela meeting house, through Kavera, Aroa and Rutaki to Vaimaanga meeting house zone. Rats had built their nests in the pipes, while they were in storage, and had defecated in them.
In 1964, when the new pipeline section was commissioned, many people became sick after drinking water carried through the new pipeline. “Many were admitted into hospital and this disease outbreak contributed to the loss of three lives,” he writes.
“The detrimental health impact to residents’ welling was long term in the affected zone. Some of those who got sick never really fully recovered and many never reached the age of 70 years, my generation.”
Several studies on the quality of water in Rarotonga say it is causing waterborne illnesses such as diarrhoea.
A report by the Asian Development Bank in 2009 says lack of water treatment places the public at serious risk of chronic low-grade infection and occasional serious outbreaks. The report states diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases are prevalent on Manihiki, Aitutaki and Rarotonga.
“In Rarotonga, the only water treatment consists of coarse grade filters which are wholly inadequate for removing disease-causing contaminants,” the report adds.
Another study on integrated water resources management warns water supplies in Rarotonga and the outer islands are neither properly filtered nor disinfected, contributing to waterborne illness like diarrhoea (835 cases in 2003 alone) and dengue fever.
The 2007 study, by GWP Consultants in conjunction with the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission and United Nations agencies, says improved water supply and sanitation was enhancing the reduction in infectious diseases.
Local water authority To Tatou Vai last month revealed their latest tests of Rarotonga’s water supply has detected very high counts of Escherichia Coli (E.coli) bacteria – an indicator of dangerous contamination.
This is proof that disinfection is needed for clean drinking water on the island, To Tatou Vai said.
Of 40 samples tested, 33 contained E.coli and 21 of these had high or very high counts, the report says. The tests did not identify the type or source of the E.coli. “E.coli is an indicator that there is faeces in the water. If there are faeces then it is likely that there will be pathogens in the water as well,” To Tatou Vai said. “The only acceptable level of E.coli in drinking water is zero.”
Sam Napa Sr is asking residents and stakeholders to learn from the past water-supply disaster and consider disinfecting Rarotonga’s water supply system.
The government of the 1960s began building chlorination plants at Rarotonga’s water intakes, but ran out of money.
Now government is again looking at chlorination to disinfect Rarotonga’s drinking water, once the $90 million Te Mato Vai project is commissioned.
But anti-chlorine group Te Vai Ora Maori wants government to look at other options and hold a proper consultation with the people, before making a decision on the disinfection method.
Last night, Te Vai Ora researcher Andy Kirkwood said they had heard of the outbreak in the 1960s and were seeking to ascertain the facts.
The Te Mato Vai project management unit earlier confirmed they had brought in polyaluminium chloride to “flush and disinfect” the newly laid pipes.
However deputy project manager Tangianau Taoro said they are not using any chemicals to disinfect the water at Te Mato Vai work sites, adding Rarotonga’s water supply and the pipe network it runs through are both still untreated. “The new filtration and treatment works, including any new trunk mains being constructed as part of Te Mato Vai, will not be operating until after the new network and intake site treatment plants are fully completed.
“In the meantime, these new works are isolated from (not connected to) the old system. In other words, the water you are receiving from the tap now is being delivered through the same old pipes and is still untreated.”