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Tuvalu in the south Pacific – one of the island groups suffering a shortage of fresh water after a particularly strong La Niña system. (Photograph: Matthieu Paley/Corbis)

South Pacific Islands Face Water Crisis After Six Months of Low Rainfall

Rising sea levels and a shortage of rain leave Tuvalu and Tokelau relying on bottled water

 by The Guardian

Crops are wilting, schools have shut their toilets and government officials are bathing in lagoons because of a severe shortage of fresh water in a swath of the south Pacific.

The island groups of Tuvalu and Tokelau have declared emergencies, relying on bottled water and seeking more desalination machines. Parts of Samoa are starting to ration water.

Supplies are precariously low after a severe lack of rain in a region where underground reserves have been fouled by salt water from rising seas that scientists have linked to climate change.

The logistics of supplying everyone with enough water to survive and the potential health problems that might arise is worrying officials as is how the islands will cope in the long term.

"We are praying that things will change," the Samoan-based official Jovilisi Suveinakama said.

Six months of low rainfall have dried out the islands. Climate scientists say it is part of a cyclical Pacific weather pattern known as La Niña – and they predict the coming months will bring no relief.

Rising sea levels are exacerbating the problem, as salt water seeps into underground supplies of fresh water that are drawn to the surface through wells.

On the three main atolls that make up Tokelau, the 1,400 residents ran out of fresh water last week and are relying on a seven-day supply of bottled water that was sent on Saturday from Samoa, Suveinakama said.

He added that some schools no longer had drinking water available, and pupils often needed to return home if they wanted to use a toilet.

"In terms of domestic chores, like washing clothes, everything's been put on hold," Suveinakama said. "We are cautious of the situation given the possible health issues."

He said that Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand, had tapped emergency funds to buy desalination machines, which turn salt water into fresh water. He hopes those will be shipped to the islands soon.

In Tuvalu, a country made up of low-lying atolls that is home to less than 11,000 people, the Red Cross team leader Dean Manderson described the situation as "quite dire".

He said on Tuesday that on the island of Nukulaelae there were only 16 gallons (73 litres) of fresh water left for the 350 residents, and the Red Cross was sending over two small desalination machines.

He said much of the well water on Tuvalu was unusable because it had become contaminated with salt water.

The New Zealand government this week flew a defence force C-130 plane to Tuvalu stocked with Red Cross supplies of bottled water and desalination machines. Officials including the high commissioner, Gareth Smith, also flew over to assess the situation.

Smith said the coconut trees on Tuvalu were looking sickly and the edible breadfruit, which grow in trees, were much smaller than usual. He said other local fruits and vegetables, including a type of giant taro, were not growing well or were in short supply.

He said people in the capital of Funafuti were permitted a ration of two buckets of water a day and government ministers had been bathing in the lagoon to preserve water.

Funafuti residents have been relying on a large desalination machine for much of their daily water supply, said Manderson. The Red Cross has been helping to improve the function of the machine and fixing others that have broken down, he added.

The New Zealand climate scientist James Renwick said the rainfall problems could be traced back 12 months, when the region began experiencing one of the strongest La Niña systems on record.

La Niña is triggered when larger-than-normal differences in water temperature across the Pacific Ocean cause the east-blowing trade winds to increase in strength, Renwick said. That, in turn, pushes rainfall to the west, leaving places such as Tuvalu and Tokelau dry.

Last year's La Niña system dwindled by June but this year it has begun picking up again just before the November rainy season, Renwick said, meaning that there is no relief in sight for island groups such as Tuvalu, Tokelau and Samoa.

"Low rainfall continues to be on the cards, at least through the end of the year," Renwick said.

Officials say they are concentrating on the short-term supply problems and have not yet had time to think about longer-term solutions for the islands. But they say the combination of rising water levels and low rainfall makes life on the islands look increasingly precarious.

© 2020 The Guardian
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