Graham Dooley: An Optimist's Eye to Fiji's Water Supply and Sanitation

"Absolutely, the Fijians are an optimistic people."

Graham Dooley, a Director of The Water Authority of Fiji, joined me to talk about his optimism and insights into Fijians' optimism.  As I am in the water sector, too,  I asked him about Fiji's water and sanitation plans.


Victor Perton: "Graham, everyone who visits the Center for Optimism is asked these questions, "What makes you optimistic?" "What makes you feel optimistic?"

Graham Dooley: "I don't know what makes me optimistic, but I'm one of those guys who always sees the glass half full. 

"I always look for the good in people. I'm naturally gregarious, so I like meeting new people talking to people and seeing the better side of humanity. 

"Now, there's plenty on the news these days, the television news, in which you don't see the better side of humanity on display, but I tend to concentrate in my television viewing habits on those where people are doing well and doing good things. I love shows like Landline, which is at the ABC, about the farming community, because it always shows good things and people working hard."

Victor Perton: "As a director of the Fiji Water Authority, what are you seeing in Fiji and progress in providing water and sanitation services?"

Graham Dooley: "Look, it starts with the government. The Fijian government, headed by Prime Minister Rabuka, was elected in December last year on a reform agenda, and their objective is to fix up all the things that are not going so well in Fiji.  

"Fiji is a small country. It relies heavily on tourism. It suffered economically during the COVID crisis because the tourists stayed away.  

"Looking back, you could say Fiji should have done more and better on roads, electricity, water, wastewater, stormwater drainage, and all the civic infrastructure you see in a big city like Sydney or Melbourne.  

"It's better to look forward and get things done!

"So, one of the missions of the Water Authority is to fix up all the wrong things. Now, this is going to be a multi-decade event, there's no doubt about that, and we'll have to invest a lot of capital into refurbishing the old infrastructure. As much as I would like to throw it all out and start again with a blank sheet of paper, it won't happen: That is just not affordable for the people of Fiji.  

"So we will go through a process, as a new board, all appointed by the current government, to go through all of the old assets and deal with all of the legacy problems that have been building up over decades and try and sort them out in an orderly way. 

"There was a water-quality incident over the weekend just past. These issues emerge pretty frequently, and it's all down to underinvestment in infrastructure in the past.  

"Fiji has imported ideas on excellent corporate governance structures and public service management from Australia and New Zealand.  

"Thus, the Water Authority was set apart from the government departments as a statutory authority in an act of the Fijian Parliament in 2007. Still, the Act wasn't quite correctly implemented, so some remnant issues remain.  

"At our first board meeting, the Minister for Public Works came and spoke to us, and he said, "I don't know what all the problems are, but you guys here around this board table, men and women around the board table, you've got to sort all this out and let me know where I can help." 

"And that was a pretty good introduction from a pretty optimistic new government coming in and picking up all the bits and pieces that have been left over for decades."

There is a spirit of optimism and a spirit of reform that comes from the government and the ministers. 

"I've been selected by the Prime Minister and put on the board as a seriously experienced expert in how to run water systems. 

"The model I have in mind is what we'd like to do to convert the Water Authority of Fiji into the equivalent of a well-performing mid-sized government-owned water utility in Australia. In round numbers, the Water Authority of Fiji is smaller than SAWater in South Australia and more like one of the mid-sized water utilities in Victoria like Barwon Water, not as big as the Yarra Valley Water where you work, Victor. We've got a bit of work to do as a board to come to grips with the issues and do it."

Victor Perton: "Thinking about Fijian desalination plants and water reuse through treatment plants, will there be more in the mix?"

Graham Dooley: "There has to be. There has to be just through the dint of climate change. Although it is commonly thought that the Pacific Islands are not subject to weather changes, they are affected by changing rainfall patterns. The rainfall in Fiji, because it's in the tropics, has been reasonably constant so that you could rely on that predictable rain, but as climate has changed, the rainfall is not so frequent. You might get the same amount of rain each year, but it falls in a different pattern. That means capturing and storing raw water, from which you produce drinking water, must be done differently.

"Altogether, in Fiji, about a hundred islands have human habitation. Most of those are the resort islands, and most of the resort islands have their own small seawater desalination plants, so they're more relaxed about changes in weather patterns and so on. They can make drinking water out of the ocean and have small sewage treatment plants. 

"But on the two main islands, the big island where Suva and Nadi are and a smaller island to the north, the Water Authority runs about 30 different water supply and sewerage systems. All of those need updating, and they're all conventional systems where you catch rainwater and put it in a dam or a tank or treat it and put it in pipes to people's houses. So we've got our work cut out as a board and an authority."

Victor Perton: "My area of research is optimism, which is a belief that good things will happen and that things will work out in the end. Do you see the Fijians as an optimistic people?"

Graham Dooley:  "Absolutely, the Fijians are an optimistic people.

"As a tourist, when one goes to the smaller islands with a resort, everyone is happy because you're having a holiday. The staff generally live in a little village on the island, and they're happy people, and everyone has a good time. 

"But when you're in the business community and dealing with the ordinary provision of government services as we are, it's not a tropical island or a resort. It's down to business. 

"But that fundamental quality of the Fijian people remains an optimistic outlook. 

"One of the fundamental underpinnings of society is the family. These family units are big units of extended families of multiple generations, plenty of brothers and sisters, cousins, all of the people they married, and all the children they have. So this big family togetherness is one of those driving forces that underpins that. When you see these big family units where people make an effort to get on, it tends to reinforce the positives. 

"You come away from a big family event feeling positive and good about life; there's no doubt about it. And these are all people you're related to by blood or marriage, and they get on with each other. They make a point of getting on with each other. That doesn't mean they're all permanently happy all the time. They'll have their stresses and challenges in life, and teenage kids will be teenage kids in any culture.

"The fundamental building block of society in Fiji culture is a strong family group supporting an optimistic outlook on life.

"One of the ladies in the office said, "Well, when we get together as a family group and we get together a lot, then the serving of food, the preparation of food and the serving of food is a really important part of that family togetherness. And so we always eat very well when we get together. And so when we have a working lunch in the office, it always is very well catered for." 

"This sense of togetherness generally around a meal in families breeds a sense of optimism. 

"If you took a poll of the Fijian people, which you're probably going to do, Victor, you would find more people have an optimistic outlook in life than, I think, many other cultures, including Australia and possibly New Zealand culture. They're more optimistic.

Victor Perton:  "Are the new partnership policies of the Australian government improved on what went before?

Graham Dooley: "Well, one thing that is very fortunate for the relationship between the people of Fiji and the people of Australia is that the federal government, the Albanese government, and particularly Foreign Minister Penny Wong, has made several speeches that have been extraordinarily well received. 

"And when Penny talks about the "Pacific family", they deeply resonate with this concept of a Pacific family of nations, of the Fijians and the Tongans and the Samoans and the others. It just profoundly resonates. And so when Penny Wong makes those speeches, people really relate to it. 

"I can sense this in my dealings with the senior executives of the government and the Water Authority; I rub shoulders a bit with the senior executives in the government departments. They want to be part of a bigger family of nations with Australia and New Zealand. 

"Minister Wong has appointed a new high commissioner to Fiji, Mr Ewen McDonald, Australia's inaugural Special Envoy for the Pacific and Regional Affairs. He coordinates all the Australian high commissioners around the Pacific nations, so there's a coordinated effort between the high commissioners that Australia has in all of those nations to do a better job at relating to those nations. 

"Those nations want to relate to Australia and New Zealand, and we lost our way a bit, as Australians, in our relationship with them. Other countries with other geopolitical forces around would happily step in, but the Fijians like the relationship and the quality of the friendship Australia and New Zealand offer and customarily deliver. 

"Of course, the Rugby Union World Cup is being played in France, and there is huge interest in that in Fiji. It's almost a national religion and a national sport in Fiji. And so everyone is very attentive. When I get into a taxi or anything at the airport, they always ask me about rugby, so I have to ensure that I'm sufficiently literate about what's going on in rugby to have a sensible conversation. But Australia is in the same group as Fiji in the group of countries playing the knockout rounds. So eventually, those two countries will meet, and I'll have a divided loyalty there."

Victor Perton: "Your point on the Pacific Family is fascinating because our Prime Minister Albanese, on the day he was sworn in, said, "The two messages I want from my government are optimism and hope." And Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka last week, in releasing the latest economic data, talked about how optimistic he is too. If we can have that optimism at the leadership level and we, at our level, can share it as well, it makes for much stronger nations and relationships."

Graham Dooley: "You're right, Victor.  The Fiji Prime Minister did an excellent thing shortly after the election, convening a National Economic Summit. It was a genuine attempt to gather the leaders of industry, commerce, government and society together to work out what problems Fiji has that need to be tackled by this new government. There were 14 problems and challenges identified, And concerning each, there was a positive outlook. "This is a problem to be solved. This is a challenge to be met. Let's go after it." It wasn't just, "Oh, woe and grief, this is a terrible issue." 

"They're all very positive. And I'm pleased to say that number 10 of the 14 was water and sewerage. And it was straightforward. In the words that we're using, "fix it. Just fix the water and sewerage." There was no timeframe or additional budget associated. Still, the government, the leaders, the leaders of society, the leaders of industry and commerce, and the government all supported a reform program. And the Prime Minister kindly appointed me, as an external expert who knows "something about how to fix things, to join in", and I'm delighted to do that."


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