Marshall Islands: Protecting drinking water from drought and sea level rise

 Newly covered water reservoir in Marshall Islands. Photo: UNDP

By the time the Government declared a state of emergency in 2013, the wells had long run dry in the drought-stricken northern reaches of the Marshall Islands, and families had started fleeing to the capital Majuro.

This idyllic paradise is set so low in the ocean that there are few freshwater reservoirs or sources of groundwater. The lack of rain since September 2012 led to a twin crisis of drinking water shortages and damaged crops.

Highlights

  • 20% of the population is affected by extreme droughts that threaten drinking water and crops
  • The project helped increase freshwater stores, which can now last 3-4 months in an emergency
  • 186 solar water purifiers will be delivered to far-reaching communities throughout the country

By late February, “our breadfruit, pandanus, banana, and coconut trees were dying, the salinity level of underground lenses [freshwater sources] was high, and household water catchments had run dry,” remembers Nathan Jake, a resident and school teacher on the tiny Ujae Atoll.

When the rains finally did arrive in June, 11,000 people had already been affected by the drought - about 20 percent of the population of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Aid agencies warned that it would take months to replenish freshwater sources and revive crops.

This is not an usual event in the Marshall Islands. In recent times, fresh water crises are becoming more common. With climate change causing more extreme weather events, the Marshall Islands faces rising sea water levels rising and declining fresh water supplies. The 34 islands that make up the atoll nation are on average 3 to 4 metres above sea level, and will be heavily inundated by a 1-metre rise in sea level. . In a recent speech on climate change, the country’s president Christopher Loeak said “I fear that life in the Marshall Islands may soon become like living in a war zone.”

Recognising the urgency of the dwindling water supply, the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) Programme is working to increase the availability and quality of potable water. So far it has helped improve the collection and storage of rainwater in the Majuro reservoir and installed solar water purifiers in more remote areas.

In Majuro, the airport runway is the island’s largest paved area, making it an ideal surface to collect rainwater. Once collected, the water is then diverted, treated, and piped into a reservoir. But the existing reservoir and catchment systems were outdated and unable to keep up with demand. Working with the local water authority, PACC has since increased the airport reservoir capacity from 121 million litres to 138 million litres. A new lining and cover have been fitted on one of the main tanks, reducing loss from seepage and evaporation.

The results are dramatic: previously Majuro’s fresh water reserves lasted only 3-4 weeks. Now with the enhanced storage capacity and reduced evaporation, the city will be able to endure a drought of up to 3-4 months. “The benefits from the relining and cover project...is more clean, safe and abundant water for all,” says Alington Robert, the Majuro Water and Sewer Company’s Administrative and Human Resource Manager, who helped with the project.

For Marshallese residents who live in even more remote areas, there is not enough open land to depend on rainwater catchments alone. In these cases, solar purifiers can produce clean drinking water by using the sun’s energy to evaporate the water and leave contaminants and salt behind.

“The great potential of these units is to provide drinking water during drought periods, when rainwater tanks dry up and there are no other sources of drinking water available,” says Jospeh Cain, project coordinator for PACC. “They have zero maintenance, 20-year lifespan, light weight and only takes 10-20 minutes to assemble.”

Championed by the Government of the Marshall Islands and the Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination, this project is overseen by UNDP with financing from the Global Environment Facility's Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF).  Project execution is supported by Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. Through additional funding by the Australian government, 186 solar purifiers with 56 solar pumps have already been ordered for the hospital centers in the outer islands. “With PACC project support, people living in these outer islands now know how to test and treat their water catchments,” says Jina David, College of the Marshall Islands’ Land Grant Water Agent. Mr. David along with a team from the Ministry of Health have so far delivered six solar purifiers for the first time to Jaluit Atoll, and plan to deliver more in the months ahead.

What started as a response to last year’s drought is pointing the way to longer-term solutions. By making plans and investments now, the people of the Marshall Islands expect to be better prepared to face the next drought.. “This is an important achievement for our country,” said project coordinator Cain. “Water security is one of the biggest challenges for small low-lying islands, and we also need to factor in the uncertainties of climate change. Practical steps like these help us to face the uncertainties with more confidence.”