Address Upolu’s bacteria-polluting waterways

On Monday this week the findings of a scientific study on 219 water samples collected from around Upolu in December last year was made public and it revealed widespread traces of the deadly bacteria E. coli.

The article with the headline “Bacteria polluting all Upolu waterways” was published in the Monday 09 November 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer and was based on a report titled Biosecurity of Upolu Fresh and Salt Environmental Water Resources, which was published jointly by New York University in New York and Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment [M.N.R.E.] and the National University of Samoa [N.U.S.], under a partnership facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme in Samoa.

The authors of the scientific study have concluded, based on their analysis of the 219 water samples, that the E. coli was found in every sample and will have long-term implications for human health as well as trigger environmental degradation, including the destruction of coral reefs along the coast of Upolu.

As for samples from freshwater sources, the study concluded that the family of bacteria where E. coli belongs made up around ten per cent of all bacteria recovered from water samples.

“We found a consistent distribution of total coliform and fecal E. coli in rivers, lakes and inshore reefs,” the research team writes.

“All freshwater samples contained coliforms and pathogenic fecal-derived E. coli, which are main culprits of disease.

“Each seawater sample tested also tested positive for either coliform or E. coli, which are often a result of water run-off, wastewater discharge or due to near-shore human activities.”

Five days after details of the report were published – we are yet to hear from the M.N.R.E., Samoa Water Authority [S.W.A.] and even the Ministry of Health [M.O.H.] – the core Government agencies tasked with the responsibility to manage our environment, water resources and ultimately the health of the citizens.

With Samoa and the world grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic nine months on, we would think Government Ministries and agencies tasked with ensuring the health and welfare of citizens are on top of their game.

Revelations of the widespread traces of the deadly bacteria E. coli. is a cause for concern, according to the project leader and report co-author Dr. Gary Goldsten who said he was alarmed by the findings.

“It is definitely something that needs to be taken care of,” he said. “The water is not safe and it’s not clean anymore.”

And one of the benefits of the study is that the red flag areas have been identified: the Apia Urban area, across Cross Island Road as well as the north eastern and south eastern coast and a cluster between Falelatai and Faleaseela.

Scientific study reports, their use of technical jargon and the long presentation of their findings and recommendations can easily dissuade the public. 

But we should not lose sight of the study’s objective to alert those in authority and ultimately influence public policy, to ensure Governments are prepared to, for example, handle a health crisis. 

In saying that, World Health Organisation data tells us that the bacteria E. coli can cause severe food-borne diseases [such as hemorrhagic colitis]. 

Therefore if the M.O.H. is as proactive as it claims to be on matters of national health, it would push for further research to investigate any links between the water quality of the areas highlighted in the study, and the health of the local community.

In fact the above was one of seven recommendations by the report: Future studies need to be performed drawing on the results of this research to identify potential medical cluster effects that correlate with water quality.

The report was released in June this year, and close to six months after its publication, the relevant Government Ministries are yet to advise if they will act on its seven recommendations. These should include meetings with communities and or families living in or within the vicinity of the areas whose samples recorded high concentration of bacteria.

In fact the report states that there will be a review of its findings with the M.N.R.E., M.O.H., Ministry of Women Community and Social Development, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries [M.A.F.]. 

And while we are unable to ascertain if that process kicked into gear following the release of the report in June 2020, failure by the aforementioned Ministries to revisit the report’s findings and act on its recommendations would amount to negligence.

Here in Samoa, citizens have over the years paid the price for negligence by those in authority, let’s not go down that path again. 

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