Small Islands, Big Changes: Freshwater Scarcity in the South Pacific

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote long ago, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Although he was living in England at the time, Coleridge could have been describing the lives of people currently living in the South Pacific. According to recent reports, some islands have less than one week’s worth of bottled water left. Considering that small islands like Tuvalu, Tokelau and Samoa sit in the world’s largest ocean, the irony of Coleridge’s words rings a bit desperately. What caused this crisis — and what’s the solution?

Small island near Samoa. (© CI/ photo by Haroldo Castro)

As for the cause, the short answer is that the global weather system is experiencing an extreme year. Right now, the Earth is in what climatologists call the “La Niña” stage of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. The ENSO has three different stages: La Niña, El Niño and neutral. The ENSO is a natural global climate cycle that has been operating for thousands of years — perhaps much longer. Each stage of the cycle alters weather patterns around the world.

A La Niña stage creates dry conditions in the South Pacific and eastern Africa, where a massive famine is occurring in the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. This year’s La Niña is very powerful. It’s caused a severe drought in the southern U.S. — coal-fired power plants in Texas are close to shutting down because there hasn’t been enough water in the local rivers and lakes to cool their turbines. In South America, the Brazilian Amazon has seen severe forest fires because of the drought.

But a La Niña stage isn’t just about dry conditions. I live in Oregon, in the northwestern corner of the U.S. We’ve had a record wet year here, and the snowfall last winter was so high that a number of major roads were shut down for weeks because they couldn’t be plowed. Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada, has more water in it than it’s had for more than a decade because of all of rain to the north. El Niño stages of the ENSO cycle tend to reverse many of these patterns — more rain in Africa, Texas and the South Pacific, less rain in places like Oregon. Most years, though, are “neutral,” without any influence from the ENSO cycle.

But citing ENSO as the reason why people in Tuvalu don’t have water isn’t really sufficient. If this drought is just part of a natural cycle, then why is this year so extreme?

In fact, it’s probably a result of climate change. Most people think of warmer air temperatures when they hear about climate change (you can thank the term “global warming” for that) but in reality, every part of the global climate system is shifting, including the ENSO cycle.

The science is still evolving about how climate change will alter ENSO, but right now it appears that ENSO is becoming more intense and extreme. The African drought is the worst in more than 60 years, while the Amazon drought is the worst in more than a century. These are extreme extreme events. Climate scientists are usually reluctant to point to any particular event and say it’s a direct result of climate change. However, this year continues a trend we’ve seen in recent decades.

For the people who live in the South Pacific, their water resources have always been limited; there’s never been very much fresh water on these little islands, since all of it comes from precipitation and there’s no good way to capture it. Over the last few decades, the population and per capita rate of water consumption have both grown — more demand but no more supply. This year, the small margin of error they had is gone.

Life without fresh water is very difficult, and the solutions for the South Pacific are equally complicated. Tuvalu has already started considering a slow, long-term evacuation of the entire country’s population to one or more other countries richer in natural resources and not in danger of sea-level rise, which is another climate change issue for Pacific islands.

Another option is to both reduce demand by making water use as efficient as possible (which most of these countries have done already) and to increase supply, probably by building desalinization plants, which convert salt water into fresh water. This is the route that places like the Middle East and California are pursuing. But these islands are very poor, and these plants are expensive to build and to operate.

If the ENSO continues to become more intense, these countries may need to relocate more of their people to other places. The people on these islands will get past this crisis, but they have some hard choices ahead as they think about what might be best for their children’s future.

These decisions may have to be made sooner than we’d like; recent projections suggest that 2012 may continue the current La Niña stage for another year.

John Matthews is the director of CI’s freshwater climate change program.

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