The Muri lagoon sanitation project is moving ahead quickly with 11 bio-filters already installed and work on installing improved septic tanks due to begin in the next week or two.
The Muri pilot project is the first in a larger scheme being implemented by the Water, Waste and Sanitation unit (WATSAN) of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Planning. The project aims to improve sanitation on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. It is designed to improve water quality in Muri lagoon and will give WATSAN the opportunity to monitor the success of new septic tanks and their applicability to the Cook Islands.
“Muri is a good location for a pilot scheme. Water quality is important for the well being of the local community and is also important to tourism and the commercial and economic wellbeing of the country,” WATSAN team member Ken MacDonald said.
“If you think of the tourist brochures for the Cook Islands, the photos are almost always of Aitutaki and Muri lagoon.”
The environment of the lagoon also makes it prone to pollution.
“The combination of a relatively high population, currents, shallow water and a relatively distant reef makes Muri lagoon particularly susceptible.
“Of 242 houses, 239 require upgrades to their septic tanks to comply with public health laws.”
MacDonald explained that onsite sanitation provided by septic tanks was a good solution if done properly.
“At the moment the systems are very old. Some are designed to previous standards.”
Onsite systems involve a septic tank which does primary treatment of waste and a distributor system which releases treated waste into the soil. The distribution system depends on the types of soil.
The pilot project is going to cost about $2.4 million and will be largely paid for by the New Zealand Aid Programme. Locals are expected to pay $1000 per household to have their sanitation system upgraded.
“We are looking at the possibility of enabling residents to make payments on a monthly basis through their power bill but this has yet to be finalised,” MacDonald said.
While WatSan is coordinating the current pilot project the organisation has its eyes on long term solutions for Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
MacDonald said that WATSAN was finalising the tender to bring a group of international consultants to the Cook Islands to carry out a multi-criteria analysis of sanitation options for Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
“There are a whole range of options from septic tanks to a full matriculated system or several smaller systems. The consultants will look at the costs and benefits of all the options and find the most suitable.”
The consultants will develop a system that interfaces with the renewable strategy of the country and are due to complete their report by the end of April. The consultants also plan to hold a series of public consultations, said MacDonald. Cabinet will need to approve any project before it is implemented.
“We hope to implement it by late this year,” said MacDonald.