Water shortage in paradise

Surrounded by sparkling blue sea, many Pacific Islands facing the risk that freshwater scarcity could turn their islands uninhabitable. Tuvalu declared in 2011 the state of emergency due to water scarcity. During six month it did not rain on the remote atolls. Approximately 1,500 people of the 11,000 inhabitants run out of fresh water (BBC, 2011; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Why is there water scarcity on Pacific Islands?

One reason for the water crisis is climate change. Nations like Tuvalu are tiny atoll islands with thin freshwater lenses and no rivers or lakes. The warming trend lead to higher evaporation rates, so that more precipitation is required to replenish the freshwater lens. By sea level rise, more seawater pushes against the freshwater lens of atolls, so that groundwater gets too salty to drink.

Since groundwater is not potable, rainfall collected by roof catchments is often the primary source of freshwater. This makes people very vulnerable to droughts. The region is characterized by dry and wet seasons and strong variation of precipitation patterns due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every two to six years La Niña periods with drought conditions occur. With climate change, ENSO events become more intense with longer periods of drought. But during the drought crisis of Tuvalu in 2011, precipitation pattern lay in the range of normal variations (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011). Why was Tuvalu not any more able to meet the citizen’s needs for water?

 Other driving forces for water stress

The driving force for water scarcity is not only the lack of resources, it is also a question of an increased water demand. In the last years the domestic use of water grew with new lifestyles, cars, washing machines, and imported food. Households got equipped with flush toilets which increased the water demand increased by 25-40 % (GEF Pacific IMRW, 2012).

Problems were exacerbated by a high population density. With 333.3 people per km2 Tuvalu has today one of the highest population density in the world (FAO, 2012). The rapid population growth lead to a fast urbanization with quickly constructed insufficient water infrastructure. Rain tanks are often leaking. The growing number of family members compromises the water security in drought periods, because water tanks were constructed to cater a smaller number of family members. Many people have no paid work, so that they cannot afford to buy new water tanks. For households without income, even low fees for water from public cistern can be too much.

Poor families use the salty groundwater as emergency water source in periods of drought. But today, groundwater is often contaminated by heavy metals from waste dumps and by facial bacteria from leaking septic tanks. Health authorities on Tuvalu strongly recommend not to drink well water. But in drought periods poor people and islanders far from public cisterns have no choice. Therefore, waterborne and water-related diseases like diarrhoea and cholera, are likely to occur.

How to cope with the problem of water scarcity?

Disaster risk reduction measures are cheaper than emergency relief. The increase of water storage capacities and sustainable use of local water resources has a high priority for Pacific island nations. Water catchments get improved, communities get equipped with desalination units and dry composting toilets are installed. Educational videos like “Falevatia: A toilet for our future.” highlights the benefits of this low tech solutions:


Public awareness campaigns seek to improve knowledge about water resource management. Since national TV channels do not exist, the radio is the best way to reach people on remote islands. Weather forecasts get improved because in situations of drought they give time for emergency adaption.

Water scarcity could also compromise the food security of islands. Pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) is the main staple of the traditional diet of Pacific islanders. It has a low capacity to tolerate saltwater. Crops die due to saline water contamination, so that the cultivation of salt resistant crops is now promoted.

Outlook to the future: Is it too late for domestic adaption?

Regional governments are aware of the limits of adaption. A growing population compete over the allocation of water resources. It is not sure, if islands can cope to with less stable precipitation patterns in the future. The IPCC stated in the Forth Assessment Report that it is very likely that low-lying island states are getting entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion due to the lack of water (Mimura et al., 2007). Some settlements had to be already relocated due to the lack of water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.


One thought on “Water shortage in paradise

  1. We have a process that I think could help increase infiltration rates enough to extend the life of Tuvalu’s freshwater lens. One of the interactive rain capture maps is for Tuvalu is located at http://airsolarwater.com/dem/render_dam_map.html?buri=gdata/tuvalu-island-30 the rest are available through https://airsolarwater.com/rain-capture-interactive-maps-for-dam-placement/ Would love to collaborate with those interested in solving water scarcity problems on Tuvalu.


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