Our Pacific neighbours in Vanuatu are dying for a drink

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink," goes the famed line from the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's about a thirsty sailor aboard a becalmed ship in a giant, salty, undrinkable ocean, but it could just as easily apply to New Zealand's northern neighbours, blissfully ensconced in their lush green paradise, and dying for a drink.
Vanuatu receives an enormous amount of rainfall, but a safe supply of drinking water is way out of reach for much of the ...
UNICEF NZ: Vanuatu receives an enormous amount of rainfall, but a safe supply of drinking water is way out of reach for much of the country's population

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink," goes the famed line from the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It's about a thirsty sailor aboard a becalmed ship in a giant, salty, undrinkable ocean, but it could just as easily apply to New Zealand's northern neighbours, blissfully ensconced in their lush green paradise, and dying for a drink.

On Vanuatu's northern islands, rainfall averages between two to four metres a year. That's heaps! It's more than the West Coast of the South Island.

A huge part of Unicef's work in Vanuatu involves giving people fresh, safe water so that they don't need to worry about ...
UNICEF NZ: A huge part of Unicef's work in Vanuatu involves giving people fresh, safe water so that they don't need to worry about their kids becoming sick.

Have you been to Vanuatu in the rainy season?! It's WET. Like, seriously torrential.

What a sad irony, then, that safe water is so hard to find.

Kiwis have a chance to make an enormous difference to the lives of our Pacific cousins.
UNICEF NZ: Kiwis have a chance to make an enormous difference to the lives of our Pacific cousins.

Last year, Havelock North was thrown into chaos when its water supply became compromised. It was a terrible situation - and a deadly one. But that's just normal in Vanuatu.

Many villages are nestled up in the bush-clad hills - away from the relentless mosquitos and oppressive heat, but also from safe water sources.

Women (and it usually is the women) and children might spend a few hours a day walking to and from those sources - ferrying heavy containers full of water.

Vanuatu is still reeling from a devastating hurricane in 2015. And the problem of access to safe drinking water persists.
‍LAWRENCE SMITH/FAIRFAX NZVanuatu is still reeling from a devastating hurricane in 2015. And the problem of access to safe drinking water persists.

I can barely carry a full watering can from the front of my house to the back without spilling half of it. Imagine carrying twenty litres up steep, slippery terrain for kilometres at a time?

And then, when they do have water, it's often not safe to drink.

To the mosquitos and heat, add contamination from animal waste, and that can mean villagers are a long way away from the nearest drinkable water.

It's not a problem many of us have to deal with, but for hundreds of millions of people around the world, it's what they have to live with.

Every day, over 800 children die from preventable diseases caused by a lack of safe water and sanitation.

Imagine not knowing if that mouthful of water you're about to drink could potentially kill you?

I've found that we constantly get asked what exactly does UNICEF do? Something about disasters, right? Stuff with children? I'll tell you what we do. We change people's lives.

And it doesn't get more basic than water.

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It's a damned travesty that our help is needed, but it is.

With the support of MFAT, UNICEF New Zealand supports 31 communities in Vanuatu, providing safe water to around 6,000 people.

Through pumps and pipes and wells, we bring water sources closer so that women don't have to spend hours carrying heavy loads up and down challenging hills and gullies, meaning they can spend more time caring for and working to support their families.

Besides drinking water, we create facilities to improve hygiene.

The simply act of being able to wash their hands at school mean a child is more likely to attend.

For girls and children with disabilities, this is especially true. The research clearly tells us that fewer girls than boys will attend school if no sanitation is available. What will that mean for their futures? Are we happy to let that happen?

We're not.

Some more facts:

  • Every additional year a child spends at school increases their future earning by 10%.
  • Having hand basins at school for children to wash their hands with soap and water can cut deaths from diarrhoea by up to 50%.
  • Our work keeps kids in school.
  • It helps their families.
  • It stops kids dying.

You can't argue with those facts, which is why we're acting.

Right now, UNICEF NZ is fundraising to deliver water sanitation projects to 157 schools throughout Vanuatu, which will benefit 10,000 children, their families, and communities.

The really amazing thing is that every dollar donated will be matched with five dollars from MFAT. Kiwis have a chance to make an enormous difference to the lives of our Pacific cousins.

It's perhaps a hard one for Kiwis to get our heads around. We tend to take water for granted. We shouldn't. The deadly outbreak in Havelock North was a reminder that we should have a much greater appreciation for our water than what we do.

The clamour for bottled water and emergency tanks in the days after November's earthquake suggest that we occasionally remember how important the stuff is.

Maybe those experiences will give a greater understanding of the need, of why this is so important, and what a difference we can make.

We can change people's lives, and we can do it so easily. We just need your help to do it.

Water, water everywhere - and not a drop to drink.

Hopefully, not for much longer.

UNICEF stands for every child, so that every child can have a childhood. To help support life-changing water and sanitation projects in Vanuatu, click here.