Catch Each Drop


By Philippe Brewster

TODAY is World Desertification Day and for the last seven months, all islands over the 8 degree latitude in the Marshall islands have been suffering from a severe drought due to a near total absence of rainfall. The rainy season normally starts this month but as yet there has been no rain. Over 10% of the country’s population is severely affected by this meteorological phenomenon. The government declared a state of emergency in May this year and a humanitarian response targeting one of the remotest corners of the planet has been launched by the national government and international community.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a unique nation entirely composed of coral atolls. These small islands rarely rise over 3 metres above sea level and the 180 square km of land is scattered across almost 2 million square km of ocean. After nearly a year in the region, the best analogy I can make is that these islands are like oases in a wet desert.

Historically drought has been one of the greatest population pressures on these vulnerable communities.  People in these outer islands have never seen a river or a lake. Water is naturally stored in fragile fresh water lens where a layer of fresh water sits on top of the salt water and can be skimmed off through shallow wells. This however does require regular replenishment from rainfall. Other sources include rainwater catchment tanks and guttering from the roofs of homes and public buildings. The lens are now brackish and the catchment tanks dry. 

Coconuts, bananas, pandanus, breadfruit and other staple food sources have dried up and stopped producing fruit. Some of the trees are now dying. The effects of drought have long-term implications for food security because even if the rains do come, it will take a long time for these food producing trees to recover. Access to cash is also affected as income from copra (desiccated coconut) disappears.  A large scale food distribution program is being planned in order to mitigate these food security concerns.

As a result of depletion of water and food sources, certain communities have been forced to collect water from nearby villages where the freshwater lens is still be active. Reports have recently come out that this may be causing some tension between traditionally peaceful neighbours. The drought has also begun to affect people’s health with cases of gastritis, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and hepatitis all being reported. Women and children, traditionally more confined to domestic duties, are particularly hard hit by the lack of water.

The response to this emergency has focused around two things in plentiful supply in the Marshall Islands. Sun and sea. Therefore an effective emergency response solution has been mobile solar powered reverse osmosis (desalination) units. At $12,000 a unit, one machine has the capacity to produce enough water to keep 150 people with over 9 litres a day. Twenty four of these units have been procured with plans underway for more. These will form a bank of emergency response units that can be mobilized to affected communities when the need arises.

This, however is not a long-term solution. Will climate change lead to more droughts? This is still uncertain, but what is certain is that the Marshall Islands Government has a motto that needs to be acted on – ‘catch each drop’.  Accordingly priority is being given to rehabilitating and optimizing rain water catchment systems for all dwellings in these remote communities as part of a recovery plan. Drought and salt resistant food plants have also been tested and will need to be further promoted. With an increasingly unpredictable climate, communities need to prepare now in order to enhance their resilience.

Note. IOM procured the solar desalination units with assistance from USAID, the national government and other humanitarian groups.

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Philippe Brewster is the IOM Program Manager for the Climate Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction & Education (CADRE) Program in Micronesia and the Marshall Islands