Interview: Raka Taviri
Where does Papua New Guinea stands in terms of water reticulation, and to what extent is this affecting socio-economic growth?
RAKA TAVIRI: The government wants to achieve coverage of 100% of provincial towns and 85% of all district towns as part of PNG Vision 2050. This is a bold goal, as currently the total urban population that we serve with our organisation is around 300,000, which is less than 6% of the country’s population. That figure does not include the national capital district, which is served by a separate company, but we think that this is achievable through the common effort of international institutions such as the World Bank.
Water is key to PNG’s socio-economic development but also to generate energy, which remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the country’s industrial development. It has also been accepted that all state-owned organisations should be independent and efficient in delivering services, and Water PNG is no different. That is why we have already started implementing our medium-term plan to reach 16 districts and two provincial towns by 2018, starting from the cities of Kerema, Vanimo and Tari, in the Gulf, West Sipik and Hela Provinces, respectively. Fresh water is just one element of the master plan though, the other one being wastewater, which is more capital-intensive and will require different financial arrangements. PNG has a small urban population compared to the Asia-Pacific region but it represents a significant cash economy, and it is essential to ensure financial health and stability for the country as a whole.
What sort of investment will be needed to provide 16 districts and two provincial towns with water?
TAVIRI: The biggest expense in this industry, especially in PNG, is normally mobilisation costs, because the country’s infrastructure continues to lag behind, especially when it comes to the road network, and it is very expensive to shuffle around prime movers. It costs as much as PGK10m ($3.4m) per district to deliver one to two megalitres of water, which will allow these towns to grow demographically to a point where there could be a return on the investment. That means introducing critical infrastructure that could last at least 20 years in any location. For this reason we would rather tender at least four or five projects to each company instead of all projects to one company. The other big opportunity for the growth of the industry lies in the development of industrial zones, like the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone in Madang for the production of tuna, a PGK120m ($41m) investment on our behalf to deliver as much as 10 megalitres of water there over the next few years.
Port Moresby has been experiencing water shortages over the last few years, caused by El Niño. Is the real issue the lack of water or management?
TAVIRI: From my perspective, it comes down to poor planning, as PNG is endowed with great reserves of water which are often misused. For instance, the liquefied natural gas plant, which uses the same reticulation as Port Moresby, could have easily been tapping a great reservoir near Lake Bunu, at the border between the National Capital District and Central Province. The water levels there never went down, not even during the worst months of the severe drought we experienced in 2015, and it could have been a safer and cheaper option to serve such an essential industrial asset for PNG.
Better communication between all stakeholders could do wonders for this precious resource, which is why a national water policy is badly needed. Population and economic growth will continue to place unprecedented pressure on water for sanitation and for electricity generation, especially considering the low level of electrification persisting in PNG. If climate change makes water supply less predictable, we will need to plan better than ever as an administration.
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