By Reeni Amin Chua, IFRC
Parts of the Pacific island state of Tuvalu are in danger of running out of fresh drinking water. The country is in its second week of drought-induced state of emergency. The government declared a nation-wide state of emergency on 28 September 2011 due to critical shortage of water.
The decision followed a detailed joint assessment of two of the worse affected islands, Nukulaelae island and the capital island of Funafuti, by the Tuvalu Red Cross Society, National Disaster Management Office and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). A state of emergency was declared after existing desalination plants broke, exacerbating an already dire situation.
Tuvalu depends primarily on rain water for most of its drinking water, which is collected and stored in storage tanks. Since early this year, the country has been hit by a prolonged period of dry weather attributed to the La Nina weather pattern. According to SPC, this is the third year of serious drought, and the past 12 months have been the second driest period in the 78 years Funafuti has been keeping records. Over 330 people on Nukalaelae and 5200 people on Funafuti have been severely affected by the water shortage.
“The situation has become dire as we have not received adequate or sustained rainfall in over six months, and this is the third consecutive year that we have received below average rainfall in Tuvalu,” said Tataua Pese, Secretary General of the Tuvalu Red Cross Society. “The drought is likely to continue into December as meteorologists have forecast very little rain until then.”
Most households in Nukulaelae and Funafuti are either out of water or running on a very low supply and are depending on community rationed water of 40 litres per family a day. This is below the international Sphere standard of 15 litres per person per day during emergencies . Although exceptions are being given to large families and those with babies, 40 litres of water is hardly enough for an average family of nine in Tuvalu to use for drinking, cooking, washing, and personal hygiene.
The Tuvalu Red Cross Society has been at the forefront of responding to the emergency. Volunteers delivered tarpaulin packs, water containers and 10,000 litres of water to the communal water tank in Nukulaelae during the first joint assessment trip to the island.
The New Zealand Red Cross has also sent two emergency desalination units along with two relief delegates to support Tuvalu Red Cross in its response to the disaster. The desalination units were immediately transported to Nuklaelae and were operating at full capacity within three hours.
“The desalination units have been producing up to 4,000 litres of clean water per day. However these only have enough capacity to to meet the drinking and cooking needs of the affected communities. They are small units meant for quick deployments during emergencies, used as a temporary measure until larger capacity units arrive,” said Gregg Johns, one of the relief delegates from New Zealand Red Cross.
“There is not enough water for washing and hygiene needs. So people are washing in the sea. Food crops such as taro are also dying as people can’t water their crops due to the lack of fresh water,” Gregg said.
The loss of crops could potentially lead to a long term food security issue, as the population relies on subsistence crops for food. Other food on the island tends to be imported and expensive.