Tuvalu Nearly Out of Clean Water

State of Emergency declared for tiny island-nation suffering from climate-change-induced drought.

Rising sea levels will eventually make Tuvalu unlivable, but first: life-threating water shortages for its population. (Photo: Peter Bennetts/Getty Images)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

In a place where things couldn’t seem to get any worse, the remote island nation of Tuvalu has announced that parts of the country are just days away from running out of drinking water.

Long the poster child for the pessimistic future of low-lying islands, thanks to rising sea levels due to climate change, the Pacific Ocean archipelago of Tuvalu—four reef islands and five atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii—declared a state of emergency last week. It hasn’t rained in Tuvalu in seven months, due to a combination of climate change, a three-year long el Nina and subsequent drought. One of its islands, Nukulaelae, claimed to have just 60 liters of drinking water for its 330 people.

The tiny nation has been in the headlines for the past decade, ever since one of its prime ministers announced the country would one day be forced to move its entire population to New Zealand, Australia or Fiji before the expected sea level rise of 8 to 16 inches by the end of the century made the islands unlivable.

“Communities in Tuvalu are pretty used to doing it tough,” said Dave Hebblethwaite, 2ater management advisor for South Pacific islands. “Atoll environments are really hard environments to live in and when you’re just relying on rainfall for all your water, you find yourself in situations whereyou need to make the most of every small amount. For these communities to be asking for external assistance, it shows that the situation is quite serious.”

A very short-term fix to the water shortage arrived on Monday when Tuvalu’s closest neighbors in New Zealand sent desalination units and containers of fresh water to the country of 11,000 (just 26 square miles, it is the fourth smallest in the world). A Tuvaluan Navy ship distributed water and Red Cross volunteers earlier this week throughout the chain. Most needed were collapsible water containers, hand sanitizers and tarpaulins (to capture any rare rain that may fall). Rationing of water across the Pacific is now part of daily life. Families in Tuvalu, which can be up to 10 people, are living on 40 liters a day.

A lack of sanitation is also having an impact on human health. This week Tuvalu’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a travel alert after suspected cases of cholera were discovered.

One of its islands, Nukulaelae, claimed to have just 60 liters of drinking water for its 330 people.

Unfortunately Tuvalu’s problem is not isolated and is spreading across the Pacific. Three-hundred miles east, the tiny New Zealand-administered island of Tokelau has also declared a state of emergency, claiming to have less than a week’s worth of drinking water. Even big islands like Samoa are in desperate need of fresh water; its riverbeds and farms are drying up.

“One thing is for sure, water will be the main mechanism by which climate change impacts on these island communities," said Hebblethwaite, "whether it be by droughts or by storms or floods. So buiding their resistance to today’s climate variability that they’re experiencing will be a key defense they can employ against the future impacts of climate change, and I think people are recognizing that."

As the region’s leaders wrestle with how to provide its populace with clean drinking water, other impacts of climate change continue apace: In March saline saltwater seeped inland on the atoll of Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, due to rising sea levels, poisoning wells and killing crops. Perhaps its population will have to emigrate sooner than expected.

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