Asia–Pacific Analysis: Solving the water dilemma

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The Pacific islands are surrounded by water, yet inhabitants face severe water shortages. Crispin Maslog highlights potential solutions.

As we approach the end of the 'Water for Life' Decade in 2015, concerns over water availability in the Pacific island nations have taken an urgent turn. 

In October last year, big headlines about two idyllic South Pacific island nations, Tokelau and Tuvalu, which are facing a water crisis, made a splash in the Asia–Pacific region. After six months without rainfall they were running out of fresh water fast and had declared a state of emergency.

The situation was so bad that the New Zealand Red Cross had to come to the rescue, "mobilising 2,000 collapsible water containers, hand sanitisers, tarpaulins used to capture rain [and] two emergency desalination units". Schools were closed as residents conserved what little water they had and prayed for rain. [1]

It seems ironic that the 14 Pacific island nations are surrounded by a limitless body of water and yet the nine million people inhabiting them are facing water shortages.

A unique challenge

Only six months ago (April, 2012), The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted the unique freshwater challenge facing these island nations. UNEP said that the almost total reliance on rain-fed agriculture on these islands had put their economies and livelihoods at risk.

It reported that "access to improved drinking water sources in Fiji and Papua New Guinea (at 40 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively) is about half the global average". [2]

While water scarcity in these nations is more intense, the problem applies worldwide. An ever-increasing global population and rapid economic development in emerging economies are translating to increased demand for food and energy.

Water is a vital component in the production of both, and withdrawals from the world's rivers, lakes and aquifers now exceed the rate at which nature can replenish them. For example, rainwater used in crop irrigation is taken from the same supply used for drinking and household needs.

Agricultural pollution from fertilisers and pesticides further reduces the amount of freshwater fit for human consumption. And climate change promises unpredictable changes in freshwater availability.

For residents of islands with no surface water or substantial groundwater reserves, unreliable rainfall is the only natural source of water — leaving the islands in a vulnerable position. 

Low-lying islands are the most vulnerable. Six of these — Kiribati, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Tonga and Tuvalu — have no substantial surface water resources. Only Niue and Tonga have groundwater resources.

On the other hand, there is intense rainfall and runoff in the large volcanic islands, like Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which lead to flooding on the coastal plains. But the excess water there cannot be transferred to the water-starved smaller islands spread across the Pacific, because it is impractical and costly to do so.

The way forward

How do you solve this dilemma? Unfortunately, there is no proverbial silver bullet — but multiple silver bullets might work.

One part of the solution is better water allocation. This requires wiser decisions about who gets water, how much and when. In an ideal world, such decisions would balance economic efficiency, social equity and, of course, environmental sustainability.

But ours is not an ideal world. Water withdrawals are often governed not by these considerations, but by immediate human needs. And when water becomes scarce, environmental sustainability is the first consideration to go — long-term benefits sacrificed for short-term needs.

The water resources in the Pacific island nations are currently managed on an island-by-island basis. Long-term and coherent policy frameworks, as well as integrated management approaches, need to be developed.

This means that island nations must think "ridge to reefs" — managing water from the highlands to the lowlands — when drafting and implementing conservation plans, protecting watersheds, greening islands and growing mangroves in coastal areas. This will help conserve the environment and limit water loss.

Another part of the solution is to invite investors for surface water projects, and develop water conservation and recycling on a nationwide scale — following the example of the Caribbean's Virgin Islands to put in place rainwater catchment laws and infrastructure. Rainwater harvesting provides an independent water supply and will supplement the main supply, which in the big islands comes from groundwater and small lakes and rivers.

These nations, now more than ever, should also explore how new technologies and policy solutions can help. Desalination is an expensive option. It has worked in the Middle East but may not be feasible on these islands on the same scale until a low-budget version becomes widely available. Some countries, like Singapore, are now working on this technology. [3]

Better water management, an integrated environmental conservation programme, and a serious search for small-scale desalination technology using solar energy, might be the multiple silver bullets the islands need to solve this dilemma.

Crispin Maslog

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.