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Water, water, everywhere: but not in a divided nation[The Fiji Times, 9 April 2010]

28/03/2012

How can our people be divided over a basic human necessity such as drinking water?

Clean drinking water is needed by the young and old, by males and females, by Fijians, Indo-Fijians, Rotumans, and Others alike.

So why have past Fiji governments looked at water provision through ethnic lenses?

Why has water been provided to one group, but not to another in the same area?

When the water could so easily have been provided to everyone, and at much lower unit cost?

The Bainisoqosoqo Valley

Months ago, in partnership with a friend, I began to develop some hilly idle land my family had bought in Rakiraki (Bainisoqosoqo Road).  It has been tough going.

There was no drinking water supplied by government to any of the households in the valley.

There was no electricity to any of the houses in the area. Although ironically, two high voltage electricity lines have been built up the valley, for the two telecommunications towers owned by Telecom and Digicel.  But no electricity lines drop down to the farming families. Almost the same as the Monasavu electricity lines passing over Fijian landowners’ villages who themselves were not provided electricity..

The main roads are terrible, while the cane access roads wash away with every major downpour.

Often buses refuse to go up the valley to pick up school children.

Why on earth would anyone want to farm under such conditions?

A formerly bountiful valley

It is astonishing, and an incredible tribute to the hard-working spirit of the old cane-farming community, that for decades this valley used to produce some forty thousand tonnes of cane, some on unbelievably hilly and difficult land.

The sugar cane output is now down to five thousand tonnes and still declining- a reflection of the decline of the sugar industry throughout Fiji.

Many farmers just gave up cane farming simply because it was no longer profitable, given the rise in the prices of fertiliser and pesticides, cane cutting and cane cartage.

The remaining farmers in Bainisoqosoqo are no longer dependent on cane farming.  They plant a mixture of subsistence and cash crops- rice, bora, and bhindi.  They have their goats and cattle.  Some provide transport.  Some hire their tractors out to others. Some work as casual labour, as and when jobs come up. And some skillful vandals with chain-saws, cut down and mill all the good trees on the land of absentee owners.

But their educated children want urban life, where there is not only electricity and water, but also television, cinemas, good schools, good hospitals and doctors- all the development benefits that rural dwellers are denied.

As the educated children urbanise or emigrate, the remaining Indo-Fijian farmers will also eventually go.

The agricultural output from the Bainisoqosoqo valley will go down further, regardless of Government’s plans to boost agriculture.

Many of the cane farms have already reverted to bush or cattle. Some have been bought by a teak forestry company (Future Forests of Fiji).

And some blocks have been bought by urban people who have developed an urge very late in life for farming and planting trees (which unfortunately get burnt down by rural vandals who want free pasture).

But the most serious problem any new farmer faces in Bainisoqosoqo Valley, is the absence of drinking water.

Water water everywhere

There is water everywhere.

Indeed, the most important supply of water is a government-constructed reservoir way up in the hills at the end of the Bainisoqosoqo  Valley.

From there, a pipe meanders down past many of the farms, comes across my land as well (where it was almost ploughed up by mistake).

And it goes over the ridge and down to Nalawa- the Fijian village a few kilometers away.

But none of that water is available to any of the Indo-Fijian farmers and their households on the way.

A couple of months ago, the Tui Nalawa (who had been in Parliament with me in the mid-nineties) very kindly offered that I could tap into their intermediate reservoir and water supply, just half a kilometer from my farm.

But it would have been grossly insensitive of me to accept special treatment while the others in my area did not.

So the Indo-Fijians farmers continue to struggle for drinking water.

The Indo-Fijian water

They once built their a small co-operative dam and put in the pipes to their own farms. But then one farmer decided to cut the pipe that was crossing his “freehold” land.

So the reminder of the 17 farmers got together and built another small dam and reconnected their pipes.

But that water supply is not enough to reach my little farm-house.  And it will probably dry up in the dry weather.

So my farm is still without drinking water, except any rainwater that is collected.

The economic inefficiency of ethnic separatism

No doubt some years ago, government spent large resources on building the water reservoir and pipes to supply Nalawa and the other Fijian households.

It would have cost them very little to also supply the twenty five Indo-Fijian households in the valley, through which the pipes have to cross to reach the Fijian village.

Certainly, the extra amount would have been far less than what the Indo-Fijian farmers are now having to spend, to create their own water supply, which will in any case still not be enough,. when the dry weather comes along.

All because successive governments have treated the development needs of Fijians and Indo-Fijians through separate institutions.

And the water problem in Bainisoqosoqo Road is symptomatic of the ethnically differentiated almost “apartheid” system that successive governments in Fiji have followed.

In rural areas, for decades, the needs of Fijians have been dealt with through Provincial Councils.

And then recently, before the 2006 coup, the needs of Indo-Fijians were supposedly dealt with through “Advisory Councils”.

Perhaps, one justification for these separate institutions might have been the language, the cultural, and land ownership factors.

 

But in rural areas, most Indo-Fijians have a working knowledge of Fijian.  And, certainly in the West, Fijians have a working knowledge of Hindi.

 

Whatever the justification in the past, it is surely time that all these separate development strategies were done away with.

 

A rural electrification scheme, a new road, a new water supply system, a new marketing assistance scheme for agricultural products- surely they serve everyone in that area.

 

Any Cost:Benefit analysis by our Planning Office has to take account of benefits to all, not just to any ethnic group.

 

Note that Vodaphone and Digicel do not have separate networks for Fijians and for Indo-Fijians.

 

It is surely time for Fiji to think, plan, and invest in unifying development strategies for the whole nation, and not as separate ethnic groups.

 

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