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

Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the 2013 drought.  Photo Credit: UNDP
Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands during the 2013 drought. Photo Credit: 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 towards the capital Majuro.
The idyllic paradise of tourist brochures is set so low in the ocean that there are few freshwater reservoirs or sources of groundwater. Failed rains starting in September 2012 led to a twin crisis of drinking water shortages and damaged crops. 

Highlights

  • In 2013, the Marshall Islands suffered an extreme drought that threatened drinking water and crops. Twenty percent of the population was affected.
  • The PACC project in the Marshall Islands has improved rainwater collection in the capital city of Majuro and installed solar-powered water purifiers in more remote areas.
  • The reservoir project has increased Majuro’s freshwater stores, which can now last the city 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] were 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. Aid agencies warned that it would take months to replenish freshwater sources and bring crops back from the brink.

Unfortunately, fresh water crises are becoming more common. With climate change causing more extreme weather events, the Marshall Islands finds itself with too much sea water rising and not enough fresh water falling. The 34 islands that make up the atoll nation are only an average of 3-4 metres above sea level, and will be heavily inundated with a 1-metre rise in sea level.

Coupled with changes in rainfall patterns, the country’s already limited fresh water is at risk. 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 in the Marshall Islands 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. , Yet the existing reservoir and catchment systems were outdated and unable to keep up with demand. Working with the local water authority, the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change project has since increased the airport reservoir capacity from 121 million litres to 138 million litres. A new lining and cover have been fitted to 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... are 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  drinking water by separating contaminants and salt from the water.

“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. They have zero maintenance, 20 year lifespan, light weight and only takes 10-20 minutes to assemble.” says Joseph Cain, Project Coordinator for PACC in the Marshall Islands.

Championed by the Government of RMI 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 centres in the outer islands. “With PACC project support to charter our trip to remote islands of Ebon, Ujae, Lae, Wotho, Mili, Ebon, and Arno Atoll, 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 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 toward longer-term solutions.

By making plans and investments now, the people of the Marshall Islands will be better prepared to face the next drought head on. “This is an important achievement for our country,” said PACC Marshall Islands I Project Coordinator Joseph 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.”