The Vatuwaqa River and its surrounding streams are another sad testimony of the pollution of Suva’s waterways due to urbanisation, industrialisation, population growth and unplanned development
The river is a victim land-based pollution in Vatuwaqa, which is both a dense residential area, and heavily industrial area, The industrial zone at the river mouth was created from land reclamation, with squatter settlements encroaching the river and its tributaries.
Various reports and studies indicate that improper waste disposal by both residents and industries are the major threat and much of the waste finds its way into the river. The area houses industries such as clothing and textile, manufacturing and processing, automotive, depot and garages for public transport, food manufacturing and eateries.
According to a 2013 Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) report on Fiji’s State of Environment, the mouth of the river especially is heavily polluted — from discharged waste from small industries, malfunctioning septic tanks, and rubbish thrown into the water.
Residents have long complained about the stench and what an eyesore the river is. But there has been little, if any improvement.
Inise Kuruwale said it was depressing to see waste and rubbish in the waterways and drains along Karsanji Street in Vatuwaqa, where much of the run-offs and debris channel its way to the nearby river and creeks.
“It’s been that way for years. The drains, creeks and rivers are filled with rubbish even after the municipality workers clean it,” she said.
“It really is such a sad sight. It affects the environment, not to mention that it is a risk to the health of the people living close by.”
Seafood such as crabs, prawns, eels and various species of fish still survive in the heavily-polluted waters, although not in the same large quantities as before.
People who live nearby fish in rivers and creeks for personal consumption or they sell the catch.
“These marine organisms are consumed by people and the pollution will affect them,” Kuruwale added.
A 2013 Utah State University study on the Vatuwaqa River found high levels of contaminants, such as raw sewage. Water samples from six sites in the river found between 2,500 and 50,333 colonies per 100/ml. This was 12.5-250 fold over the 200 colonies of E. coli per 100ml of seawater as safe to eat raw shell fish accepted by European Union. In 2017, local media reported an organised racket of illegal dumping and littering in Vatuwaqa after noticing used white goods and industrial materials piled up in drains.
The Environment Management Act 2005 outlines various penalties for breaches, particularly commercial entities and industries who fail to comply with proper waste disposal policies. These include a maximum fine of $1 million to life imprisonment or both if a person knowingly or intentionally disregards human health, safety or the environment by polluting and causing harm to humans and severe damage to the environment. Corporate bodies can face the maximum penalty if convicted, which is five times the fine specified for that particular offence.
As if the pollution wasn’t enough, Vatuwaqa residents face a greater risk of flooding. Some residents believe this is due to the blockages of drains and waterways caused by plastics.
Frances Talevakarua said the drains and river near her home were often flooded during heavy rain and wet weather. Food packages, plastic bags and bottles in waterways were a common sight, she said.
“It is really sad to see waterways overflowing with rubbish during bad weather, not to mention the stench. It’s the same problem every year,” she said.
Renowned manufacturer of natural beauty therapies and products, Pure Fiji, have a vast expanse of gardens and trees around the buildings that form an effective barrier of protection against pollution adjacent to their property.
Pure Fiji director Gaetene Austin said pollution and improper disposal of industrial waste were a concern. The 2013 Utah University study noted that people were seen fishing, swimming and bathing from the Vatuwaqa River and its estuaries.
Besides a sanitation policy to manage water quality, it recommended a warning system for E.coli levels in the water systems, with signs along the river to warn people of the potential hazards in the water to avoid the possibility of getting sick.
It is unclear how many of these recommendations, and that from other reports, have been implemented.
What is clear is that the Vatuwaqa River continues to be heavily polluted since the root causes of the pollution are yet to be fully addressed.