Managing floods, feces and fishes in Fiji: a nexus approach to achieving sustainable development goals.

Dr Aaron Jenkins

13 Mar, 2018

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series leading up to the Australian Sustainable Development Goals Summit 2018. To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To learn more about ACFID’s work on the SDGs, visit this page on the ACFID website.

If you work in international development, then you will be aware of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The 17 SDGs are ambitious Global health goals that recognize the interconnectedness of human and environmental health. The SDGs have received mixed reviews, with some saying they are overly idealistic, complex and impractical, and others embracing them as a compelling vision that addresses the root causes of current and future ill-health, derived from a socially inclusive process. Whatever your personal stance, the SDGs demonstrate that human well-being and environmental sustainability cannot be separated and addressed by individual sectors.  Despite its practical challenges, the world urgently needs a ‘nexus’ approach that combines goals across sectors and disciplines. Human health remains central to the SDG agenda, as it is the key outcome of interest and can be reliably measured, however, it acknowledges the inescapable fact that long term human health is completely dependent on our planets functional ecosystems.

Around the same time the SDGs were approved in 2015, the academic community launched the concept of Planetary Health, which received attention at the most recent UN General Assembly as a potential framework for achieving SDG implementation. Planetary Health, put simply, is the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends. At the heart of enacting this Planetary Health concept and achieving SDG progress is a belief that divorcing economic growth from ecological impact is possible. Many find this difficult to reconcile, but precisely because of this challenge our research and practice must seek to understand the range of positive and negative connections among SDGs and ensure that progress made in some areas is not made at the expense of lack of progress in others. Planetary Health research must reliably inform cross-sectoral decision-making, seek interventions that support policy coherence and emphasize co-benefits in planning and financing. This requires a fundamental shift in attitude, from one of competition to one of cooperation and collaboration.

By 2015, the Pacific Islands had become the region with the least access to improved drinking water. A recent 2017 study highlights the region as having the highest incidence of typhoid fever in the world, a disease commonly envisioned only as a past scourge of filthy 19th century European and North American cities. Recurring cyclones and flooding events are raising the risk of water-related diseases, made worse by populations concentrating along low-lying floodplains and coasts. Like many important global issues, typhoid fever is entwined with inequality and the environment. It is related to malnutrition, poor health, poor education and lack of access to clean water and sanitation, many key SDG targets. My experience in Fiji suggests a ‘nexus’ approach to combating this disease (or any water related health issue) can be a straightforward, practical and cost-effective way to make progress on many of the SDGs in a way that aligns with the priorities of most sectors.

My colleagues and I have shown that practices that degrade river basins – like deforestation and poor road building – can increase transmission of typhoid fever through increased erosion and flooding. We also demonstrated that fishes, traditionally forming staple diets of inland communities, were absent from similarly degraded river basins in Fiji. In these degraded rivers flooding occurs more often and has major impacts on food- provisioning and biodiversity. The absence of these fishes has important dietary implications and also has cultural totemic values. The burden of disease combined with deficiencies in nutrition and loss of culturally important elements of the environment are also likely to be mutually reinforcing.  

We have also demonstrated that reducing forest clearing along the edge of the river in Fiji is effective at maintaining fish diversity and abundance, and our evidence suggests that the same actions will reduce the burden of typhoid by reducing susceptibility to flooding, erosion and improving water quality. Our policy win at the end of last year was a commitment by the Forestry Department to enforce river buffer zone clearing as part of the national strategy for Typhoid prevention and control. A first anywhere in the world I’m sure, and if the prevention of typhoid helps motivate enforcement, this will also reduce floods, fecal contamination of water and increase fish availability.

The current response by public health, conservation and humanitarian agencies to linked issues of disease regulation, food and water security, and natural disaster management are piecemeal and reactive, underscoring a missed opportunity for addressing up-stream risk factors and achieving multiple dividends. Managing river basins is a major ‘nexus’ point in which to examine the relationships between multiple SDGs. As sectors affect each other, resources are limited, and time is running out, this type of ‘nexus’ approach will help us achieve more than one SDG at the same time at a faster rate and on a larger scale.

This post has been adapted from a submission collected by ACFID on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Australia’s Voluntary National Review on the 2030 Agenda. Australia will deliver its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the 2030 Agenda at the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2018. 

  • Dr Aaron Jenkins
    Dr Aaron Jenkins

    Aaron Jenkins writes in his capacity as Inaugural Research Fellow in Planetary Health, University of Sydney.* Aaron has highly regarded expertise in crosscutting development themes including integrated conservation and development, wetland management for health, nutrition and climate change mitigation, WASH and waterborne disease management, intersection of climate change, natural disaster, land and water management on health and sustainable fisheries. This expertise stems from 20 years of professional experience in international development working with international, regional agencies, governments, NGOs, donors, universities and communities in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Palau, Samoa, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and USA.

    *Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney; Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity; Centre for Ecosystem Management, Edith Cowan University; Fiji Centre for Communicable Disease Control

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