Going to the loo in New Zealand is something we don’t give a second thought – but when disaster strikes and there’s no water – it’s a different story and it’s not pretty.

For millions of our neighbours in the Pacific region, this is their daily reality. Not having proper toilet and hand washing facilities directly impacts on infants, communities and takes a significant toll on national wellbeing.

UN Water’s World Toilet Day is being celebrated today (Tuesday 19 November), and this year’s theme is ‘Leaving No One Behind’. It emphasises the importance of expanding sanitation access to the more than 4.2 billion people living without safely managed sanitation options.

Improving water, sanitation and hygiene in the Pacific has been the work of a New Zealand Crown Research Insititue for the last 18 years.

ESR has quietly built an internationally respected reputation in its role of technical advisor to UNICEF for several national-level programmes.

Christchurch-based scientists, Matt Ashworth and Jan Gregor, spend most of their working lives in both remote Pacific villages and government corridors doing important work to help communities achieve better standards of hygiene.

“Our role is often not visible because we work behind the scenes providing technical and scientific advice to country representatives or as facilitators of regional and country level meetings, and development processes,” Matt explains.

He and Jan see first-hand the harm done to children due to the lack of clean water.

ESR provides technical and scientific support to ‘The WASH in Schools’ programme led by UNICEF.  Work started out with water supply issues, but now it covers a significant range of environmental and public health topics.

“At the individual level, early and ongoing exposure to unsanitary environmental conditions caused by inadequate or absent sanitation facilities and knowledge can cause a range of both acute and chronic conditions which impact children for the rest of their lives,” Matt says.

Such conditions include GI-tract infection, protozoan parasite infestation and disease, and environmental enteropathy (diseases of the small intestine) leading to childhood stunting.

“The burden of ongoing exposure of this by a population may lead to poor school attendance and to lower domestic and economic productivity because of the inability to work because of illness,” he explains.

Matt and Jan love their work because they’re able to respond and produce positive impacts in areas where there’s clear and glaring need.

They’re at the forefront of helping people and communities work toward creating safe and resilient water sanitation sectors, particularly in a region so negatively impacted by climate change.

“On the ground, it’s great to work with people and partner agencies in collaborative and constructive ways to bring about change that benefits the health and wellbeing of entire communities, while recognising the importance of equitable access for everyone,” Matt says.

“To undertake work which strives to deliver on sustainable development goals is a tremendous privilege - as well as a tremendous challenge that Jan and I can only do with the support of ESR.”

Some of the biggest issues facing Pacific populations today are climate change, access to safe water and sanitation. There’s also a gap developing between the funding available and the lack of people able to support the rate of growth that is needed to keep up, he says.

“Without a doubt, the work needs to continue, especially because we must continue developing responses and mitigations to the increasing impacts of climate change on the region.”



For more information contact:  media phone 027 405 8644 or


ESR is New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute specialising in science relating to people and communities.

ESR’s science helps to safeguard people’s health, provides expert forensic analysis to the justice system, protects New Zealand’s food-based economy, and improves the health of our water and natural environment.


← Back to news

ESR Scientist Matt Ashworth working with key stakeholders in a rural school Guadalcanal Solomon Islands  002

News item information