06.06.2018 - Access to a reliable water supply is something we here in New Zealand take for granted. However, in the Pa Enua (outer islands) of the Cook Islands, this vital resource is not so easily accessible and an ongoing issue the local communities are faced with.

Over the past two years, VSA has provided water engineers to strengthen the capabilities of the Office of the Prime Minister, Cook Islands, to improve water security in the Pa Enua. Victoria Clark, an engineer with Beca, shares her experience.

Victoria Clark

Victoria Clark in the Cook Islands

What water supply issues are the Cook Islands faced with?

Access to reliable water supply is something we take for granted here in New Zealand. However, in the Pa Enua of the Cook Islands, easy access to this vital resource is an ongoing issue facing local communities. Most of the eleven inhabited Pa Enua rely on one primary water source which provides them with little resilience in times of drought – and it’s worsening with climate change. The quality of water received at a household level is generally not drinkable and people are required to boil or treat their water prior to consumption.

The islands are spread out over a vast area, have declining populations and variable climates. These factors create challenges for infrastructure improvements, and along with limited resources, expertise and funding it can be difficult for the communities to meet their needs.

What is VSA doing to help?

Over the past two years, VSA has provided water engineers to strengthen the capabilities of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Cook Islands, to improve water security in the Pa Enua. 

How did you get involved and what was your role?

Between October 2017 and April 2018, I was lucky enough to be selected as one of VSA’s water engineers. My role was to work with local government employees (OPM and Infrastructure Cook Islands (ICI)) in Rarotonga and in the Pa Enua to provide technical advice, develop plans and design infrastructure to meet the needs of the communities in regards to water supply, whilst also providing opportunities to build the capacity of the local people. Although the work was for the Pa Enua I was living in Rarotonga, and got a few trips out to the smaller islands.

What skills and engineering expertise did you apply?

The majority of my work was for the islands of Aitutaki and Atiu – two islands the Government has prioritised due to tourism pressures on their water resources.

For Aitutaki, I designed a new water infiltration gallery to distribute non-potable groundwater around the island via a pipe network (an infiltration gallery is a structure, usually a pipe surrounded by gravel, under the ground used to collect groundwater. The water is then pumped from this out of the ground to be used).

. I was also involved in scoping future water projects, such as new water tanks and further water galleries, and developing a water supply master plan for the island. This also included electrical resistivity testing to identify future potential water sources.

Atiu solely relies on rainwater for both potable and non-potable water supply.  I worked on upgrading an existing groundwater well and tank.  The upgrade provides an alternative potable water source which will help improve the island’s water supply resilience. I also helped scope out a water gallery project – the first on Atiu.

Other focuses of my work included writing technical standards and providing training material to empower local engineers.

What were some project challenges you experienced and how did you overcome them?

The Cook Islands’ approach to land ownership created some challenges and can cause delays in projects. Obtaining land for infrastructure projects is not as straight forward as purchasing the land, instead agreement from all landowners must be obtained and the land is then generally leased on a long term basis.

Community engagement and an understanding of local culture is vital to the success of projects in the Pa Enua. During my visit I met with Island councilors and landowners, however with the meetings held in Māori, it was a challenge for me to really understand their needs. It took some patience, perseverance and good communication skills to overcome cultural differences such as this.

Availability of funding, technical resources and people with the required skills are other common factors causing project delays. However, these were just challenges that needed adapting to. I learnt that a flexible approach was required in the way in which I worked. I also utilised my connections and resources from New Zealand. This included working with Engineers without Borders to provide technical review on my designs.

Atiu water tanks Cook Islands

Water tanks in Atiu

What was it like immersing into a completely different country and culture for six months?

Living and working in a foreign country was challenging but presented an invaluable opportunity for personal and professional growth. The Cook Islands don’t have many of the luxuries we take for granted here in New Zealand – like unlimited internet and variety of affordable food. The locals really inspired me with how they make use of the islands’ limited resources. When ICI held their Christmas function for example, I was blown away by the decorations and games the organisers created. Through this experience, I’ve definitely become a more patient, adaptable and creative engineer.

Not having family and friends around can get lonely at times, but Cook Islanders are extremely welcoming! On sunny days there are plenty of things to do where you can meet people and get amongst the local culture. Some of the things I got involved with were waka ama (outrigger canoeing), hikes, yoga, touch rugby and netball.


ICI staff 2018 Cook Islands

Infrastructure Cook islands staff

Now you’re back, do you have any advice for engineers who are interested in volunteering?

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will challenge you both personally and professionally. If you get the opportunity you won’t regret it. A previous volunteer gave me some great advice: “It’s important to remember we are engineers, and we’re here to service the communities we live in. Different societies will have different needs based on their environment, resources and culture, and as engineers we need to adapt to these.”

From the experiences I had to the people I met, the Cook Islands will hold a special place in my heart. I look forward to the opportunity to return one day; to share my skills and learn even more from them in the future.