Pumping water from the Pacific as drought lingers in the Marshall Islands

Published: 24 June 2013 11:31 CET

By Ika Koeck, IFRC

As severe drought maintains its grip on the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an Emergency Appeal to assist thousands of people facing hardship across the Pacific island nation.

The RMI Government first declared a state of emergency in April following an extended dry spell. Now, the drought is affecting some 6,400 people across 15 of the northern islands – almost half of the country. The lack of fresh water, means staple crops have withered. The most pressing humanitarian needs are access to safe drinking water and supplies of food.

Food crops on the drought-affected islands such as breadfruit, swamp taro, pandanus, and bananas have been devastated and many communities have been receiving distributions of food relief including rice, flour, sugar, and dried and canned food.

The IFRC appeal aims to raise 803,000 Swiss francs (654,000Euros) to fund a relief and recovery operation that will assist more than 3,400 people spread across six affected atolls. The operation will last for six months and will be focused mainly on the prevention of waterborne diseases and provision of safe drinking water through water collection and the use of reverse osmosis units.

Safe drinking water will be provided to households to replenish the fast declining stocks of bottled water. Reverse osmosis water production units, capable of turning 200 gallons of sea-water into drinking water every day, will be positioned in the worst affected atolls including Ailuk, Likiep, Maloelap, Mejit, Namu and Wotje. Community members will be provided with training to operate and maintain the equipment.

Paul Grierson, the IFRC’s team leader in the Marshall Islands, said coordinating relief efforts and reaching some of the affected islands presents a major challenge. “The distances between islands are huge, ranging from 90 to 680 miles. It can take two weeks by ship to circle one chain of atolls,” he said. “There is also a real scarcity of transportation and it’s very expensive.”

The IFRC will work with communities to put in place long-term safeguards that will improve their resilience to future droughts. Such projects include installing water tanks and roof catchment guttering to individual homes for harvesting rainwater.

“The majority of household water tanks are empty and wells are contaminated with salt water. Even though there have been some scattered rains, it will take months for underground aquifers and storage tanks to be replenished. This influences when people can plant and harvest their crops,” Grierson said.  

In May and early June an IFRC team consisting of a team leader, a water and sanitation delegate and a Pacific Regional Disaster Response Team member were deployed to the Marshall Islands. Four water and sanitation delegates were also deployed by the New Zealand Red Cross, for a period of two weeks.

The delegates, accompanied by RMI government counterparts from the Majuro Water and Sewerage Company were sent to the northern atolls and islands to set up, operate and train others to operate portable reverse osmosis units. In addition to water production and distribution, the teams also carried out community messaging on effective water resource management, safe water and good hygiene practices.

A National Red Cross Society is currently in formation in the Marshall Islands and the Emergency Appeal will also help to build the capacity and skills of the current National Volunteer Group (NVG) in areas such as emergency response planning, drought relief and early recovery activities.