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Thirst in Paradise: Drought in the Marshall Islands Reaches National Emergency

The Marshall Islands has declared a state of national emergency, citing its severe drought conditions as one of the worst disasters to ever befall the archipelago nation.

The announcement was made by President Dr Hilda Heine on 4 February 2016, only a few days after she was elected as leader of the Nitijeļā, the Marshall Islands Legislature, on 28 January 2016. President Heine has been thrown in at the deep end as the nation continues to be battered not only by giant waves but also by sustained drought conditions, courtesy of a protracted El Niño system that started building up in early 2015 and has shown no signs of relenting.

The country depends on rainfall for over 90% of its water supplies, and yet has received approximately a quarter of its usual rainfall during the November-February period. The capital Majuro is down to its trace water reserves. Water is being meted out in the city only once per week for a four-hour period, forcing each family to allocate their water reserves carefully to last them into the following week. Even the water pooling on the capital’s runway is not wasted, with the precious runoff serving to tide citizens by just that little bit longer until the drought breaks.

The Marshallese are no strangers to drought. The last severe drought hit the country in 2013, with 5000 Marshallese in the northern atolls enduring severe drought conditions and a further 11,000 suffering from food and water shortages. With a national population of some 50,000 people, virtually every family in the Marshall Islands has faced the harsh reality of chronic water scarcity.

In a good year, the southern atolls of the country generally receive about one hundred inches of rainfall, whilst the northern atolls receive approximately 50 inches. Whilst fresh water is never exactly abundant in the islands, communities generally get by from year to year by relying on the rainwater collected from their own roofs coupled with their network of natural underground reservoirs. As the drought worsens, however, the salt water level at the bottom of the reservoirs will contaminate what little fresh groundwater reserves remain, forcing citizens to turn to the dwindling municipal water supply back in Majuro.

The purpose of calling the national emergency is to bring the drought more international attention, with President Heine hoping that the declaration will bring in more international aid and resources to cope with the crisis. In 2013, the US government gave some $5.5 million USD in drought relief – the least they could do in the wake of the catastrophic legacy left by the ‘Operation Crossroads’ nuclear tests conducted by the US from 1946-1954, which permanently contaminated many of the islands’ water sources. Whilst the Marshallese government has done its best to install a number of desalination units, these machines are expensive to obtain and run. A typical diesel fuelled generator will produce between $30,000 and $75,000 per year in fuel costs alone. In any case, the islands require many more units to reverse the grave public health risks posed by water scarcity.

The Marshall Islands is not the only nation amongst the Pacific islands suffering from extreme drought; the same El Niño system is currently afflicting Micronesia, Palau, Fiji and Papua New Guinea with varying levels of severity, and is predicted to last well until the second half of this year. The incidence of extreme weather events in the Marshall Islands has been heightened by the system, with freak waves, king tides, soil erosion, crop damage and grassfires occurring as just some of the bonus effects of the drought. As the international community lumbers toward implementing the promises made at COP 21, we can have little surprise at the anger directed by Pacific leaders toward the inaction of Australian policymakers. Meanwhile, President Heine can but hope that her announcement will generate a few more desalination units.

Sally Andrews is the Indo Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image: Running water at the public utility on Ebeye, Marshall Islands

Image credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Flickr: Creative Commons) (cropped)

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