Managing Urban Development in Kiribati

New Zealand is working in partnership with other donors to address the urgent needs of urban communities in Kiribati, where a combination of social and environmental challenges have made increasingly extreme demands on the existing infrastructure.

In Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa, rapid population growth has overburdened the environment and created serious risks to public health. The worst effected area is South Tarawa, where approximately half of Kiribati’s total population of approximately 110,000 live within an area of 13 km2. The unemployment rate is nearing 80 percent, and an additional 2,000 school leavers enter the workforce every month. Social problems such as delinquency, domestic violence, and alcoholism are matters of significant concern (the rate of violence among families is 70 percent).

Foreign Minister Murray McCully and a New Zealand delegation visited Kiribati in September 2010, during the Government’s annual Pacific Mission. The delegation saw the effects of rapid urbanisation in South Tarawa first hand. The majority of the population were living in unsanitary, slum-like conditions, struggling to obtain fresh water. Rubbish was polluting public areas and had accumulated in the Tarawa lagoon.

Kiribati Urban Development Programme

The experience of the 2010 Pacific mission had a profound effect on the delegation and in response New Zealand has intensified its efforts to address the most pressing needs of Tarawa’s communities and the most urgent threats to its environment. New Zealand is working closely with the Kiribati Government in implementing the Kiribati Urban Development Programme. This is a comprehensive, multi-year plan that will make specific improvements to Kiribati’s two urban areas of South Tarawa and Kiritimati Island with the aim of improving the social, economic and environmental well-being of residents.

New Zealand is part of a wide-ranging collaboration with other donors in Kiribati, including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Taiwan and the Australia. This concerted effort should see a major improvement in South Tarawa’s infrastructure and living conditions in South Tarawa in the next few years.”

Fresh water crisis

Many of the most significant threats to health and well-being in South Tarawa are caused by limited access to fresh water. New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Kiribati, Robert Kaiwai, explains the role played by population growth: “Kiribati's dire water issues are primarily related to uncontrolled population pressures and lack of attention to urban planning, leading to extreme contamination of existing water reserves and over extraction.”

“With no enforcement and little to no strategic approach to water planning (increasing water catchment, safeguarding current water reserves, controlling extraction and animals) things are rapidly spiralling out of control.”

The tangible effect has been increased rates of infectious and preventable diseases – Kiribati has the highest tuberculosis rate in the Pacific (79 percent of cases are in South Tarawa) and the highest rate of infant mortality, from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Meeting water and sanitation needs

It was obvious that the issue of water and sanitation would have to be central to the work of the Urban Development Programme in South Tarawa. Water tanks have recently been installed to harvest rainwater on 10 public buildings, particularly at sites where poverty and crowding, or special facilities such as hospitals, create the most urgent need. In Betio and Bairiki villages a significant investment is being made to supply clean water and upgrade toilet facilities for 6,000 residents. A national awareness campaign will spread important messages about personal hygiene, and improvements to sewer systems will help to prevent further degradation of the underlying fresh water lenses. The Asian Development Bank is carrying out related work in sanitation in Kiribati, and the World Bank is looking at the issue of climate change, including water supply, in South Tarawa, so New Zealand is working closely with both organisations in addressing these vital issues.

Another way New Zealand is countering the problem of pollution in South Tarawa is by easing the solid waste problem. The Urban Development Programme will oversee the establishment of new systems for rubbish collection and recycling, provide equipment to the local urban council, rehabilitate existing landfills, and put procedures in place for the maintenance of access roads. The New Zealand Aid Programme and contracted staff will work alongside government-approved agents, so local staff can continue to manage South Tarawa’s solid waste in the future.

A serviced subdivision for Tarawa

To accommodate urban growth and alleviate overcrowding in South Tarawa, a government-owned plot of 14 hectares, just south of the Bairiki Airport, has been put aside for a new subdivision. The design and construction has been funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) will fund additional infrastructure services. A subdivision of 153 new residential plots, to accommodate a population of 1,000, will be offered for long-term lease by middle-to-low income families, with additional plots for civic and business uses. To ‘climate-proof’ the sub-division, contractors will first apply 1.5 metres of aggregate fill to raise the low-lying land sufficiently above sea level. Infrastructure services, including water supply and tanks, sanitation, roads and footpaths, and electricity will be established by contractors working closely with members of local Public Utilities Board and Tarawa Urban Council. Local staff will supply and manage utilities and services for the subdivision when it is completed.

The subdivision will be complemented by off-site infrastructure for the wider Temaiku area, including repairs to the outfall sewer at Tunguru hospital, chip-sealed roads, and improvements to the water supply. In total, the development will provide the basis for a future population of 10,000.
New Zealand’s aid commitment to Kiribati has quadrupled from 2008 to 2011/12. The investment in infrastructure by New Zealand and other donors will both improve long term prospects and create short term job opportunities in Kiribati. It will address the effects of unplanned urbanisation and encourage sustainable economic growth in a country struggling to reach its potential.

Back to Development Stories July - August 2011