SUVA — Lounging by the pool of one of Fiji’s most expensive resort hotels last month, an American tourist cracked open a bottle of “Fiji” mineral water and knocked it back like a draught of ice-cold beer. “Thank God for water,” he sighed, examining the label of a brand that has made its developer, Canadian entrepreneur David Gilmour, a millionaire.

On the same day, just 120 km away in the Raiwaqa area of the Fijian capital, Suva, a boy and his two little sisters stood at the roadside clutching buckets, patiently waiting for a truck to deliver water. “I was sent home from school because there was no water,” he said.

More than 200,000 Fiji residents in some of the country’s most populous suburbs reportedly went without water at the beginning of March — some, like the young boy and his sisters, for up to four days. In parts of Suva, schools and businesses were closed and students and workers sent home as water engineers failed to restore the supply.

The Public Works Department had originally issued a statement March 5 that maintenance would leave an area stretching from Suva to Nausori, site of Fiji’s No. 2 airport, without water for 12 hours. However, complications — the principal water engineer, Paul Wilisoni, cited a broken joint as the cause — meant that the cuts lasted much longer.

The public outrage that followed was heightened by the fact that this was just the latest of a series of water cuts in Fiji the water-delivery trucks, of which there were just 16 to cope with the incident in Suva, are testimony to their regularity. The nation’s system, some say, is totally inadequate for a nation where both the urban population and the demand for water are growing.

“It’s criminal, really,” said Suva resident Pauline Singh, whose own water supply had been quickly restored, enabling her to help her neighbors. “I feel quite bitter seeing young kids standing, waiting. The system is not functioning; it needs updating.”

Ironically, Singh added, it was the bursting of a newly installed water main that caused much of the damage in March.

The PWD cites burst mains and drought as the main reasons for the continual disruptions. The latter excuse is especially scoffed at by locals, since Suva is notoriously wet and cloudy, with an average annual rainfall of over 300 mm, but neither is given much credence. Rather, Fijians lament the department’s failure to implement its proposed “master plan,” which was drawn up 15 years ago, but barely saw light of day.

The plan aimed at upgrading the water supply of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, and included the construction of a $F10 million (600 million yen) reservoir. With the government strapped for funds, the reservoir, along with much of the master plan, was shelved. Today it is estimated that building the same reservoir would cost three times the original sum.

Problems such as low water pressure and shortages at peak times of the day further aggravate the issue.

Last year, the Japan-run Overseas Economic Cooperation Foundation allocated 2.3 billion yen to an upgrading project in the Nadi-Lautoka area on western Viti Levu, where 70 percent (the national average) of the 125,000 population has access to clean piped water.

While Nadi boasts Fiji’s main international airport, Lautoka is the nation’s second-largest city and a center of Fiji’s sugar trade, which accounts for around half of its total exports. The OECF aid was in recognition of the area’s growing population and importance to exports and tourism, the nation’s largest foreign-exchange earner — both of which are expected to boost the demand for water.

Plans to privatize the water-supply system have met with strong opposition, both from action groups such as the YWCA of Fiji and individuals who say they are already paying too much for an inadequate water supply.

One Tavua resident said his family had recently gone without water for two days, and not a single water truck had passed through their north Viti Levu town.

“Some people had to walk over a kilometer to the nearest reservoir to get a bucketful of water,” he said. “It’s inconvenient, but water is a basic need. If people can afford to pay more for privatized water, there’s plenty on the shelves in the stores. But my family can’t.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.