Severe fresh water shortage strikes South Pacific islands

Severe fresh water shortage strikes South Pacific islands

The South Pacific island groups of Tuvalu and Tokelau have declared emergencies amid a severe fresh water shortage.

Supplies are low after six months of low rainfall in a region where underground reserves have been contaminated by saltwater from rising seas that climate scientists have linked to a global climate change known as La Nina. Government officials are scratching their heads over questions regarding how the islands will cope with water shortage in the long term.

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

Climate scientists say the lack of rain is part of a cyclical Pacific weather pattern known as La Nina. Many expect the pattern to continue and worsen. Rising sea levels are aggravating the problem, with salt water blending into underground fresh water.

According to New Zealand climate scientist James Renwick, the rainfall problems go back to 2009, when the region began experiencing one of the worst La Nina systems on record. Renwick explained that La Nina occurs when drastic differences in water temperature across the Pacific Ocean cause the east-blowing trade winds to increase in velocity. The changes push rainfall to the west and dry out places like Tuvalu and Tokelau.

Last year's La Nina pattern toned down by June but has begun picking up again just ahead of the upcoming rainy season. There is no foreseeable relief for islands like Tuvalu, Tokelau and Samoa.

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

The 1400 residents living on Tokelau ran out of fresh water last week and are now resorting to a seven-day supply of bottled water that was sent Saturday from Samoa.
Suveinakama said that some schools no longer have drinking water available, and that students often have to go home if they need to use a bathroom. The situation has forced the people of Tokelau to tap emergency funds so they can buy desalination machines, which turn salt water into fresh water.

There were only 16 gallons of fresh water remaining on the island of Nukulaelae as of Tuesday. The Red Cross has donated two small desalination machines. Much of the well water on Tuvalu is undrinkable due to salt water contamination.

The New Zealand government has transported bottled water and more desalination machines to Tuvalu. According to New Zealand government officials, the coconut trees and breadfruit there have grown frail and shrunk considerably in size. Other local fruit and vegetables are either dying or in short supply.

Residents in the capital city of Funafuti are given a ration of two buckets of water per day. Many have been forced to bathe in lagoons to preserve water.

Officials say they are trying to fix short-term supply problems and have not yet come up with long term solutions for the islands. The combination of rising water levels and low rainfall is making life on the islands increasingly difficult.

Updated : 2021-04-14 14:09 GMT+08:00