Marshall Islanders endure food and water shortages as drought lingers

Publié: 10 juin 2013 22:23 CET

By Ika Koeck, IFRC, Asia Pacific zone office

Since April, the Pacific nation of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia has been suffering from a severe drought that has seen up to 6,400 people across 15 atolls surviving on less than a litre of water per person per day. On 19 April, the government declared a state of emergency, which was followed by a state of natural disaster on 8 May.

The most pressing humanitarian needs are access to safe water and the growing need for food supplies. The drought has forced villagers to ration water supplies and an estimated 11,000 people on the islands have been affected by the loss of staple crops. As well as decimating breadfruit and banana trees, the drought is also affecting the production of “copra”, or dried coconut meat, an important commodity in the Marshall Islands’ economy.

In May, a three-person team of water and sanitation specialists from the New Zealand Red Cross was deployed to the Marshall Islands to provide emergency humanitarian assistance. During their time on the outer islands of Ailuk, Enerjeral and Ollet, the team used reverse osmosis desalination units to produce over 12,000 litres of water.

When the team returned to New Zealand, they left behind a machine capable of making 1,440 litres of fresh water a day. One New Zealand Red Cross delegate remains in the Marshall Islands, based on the remote island of Ailuk, to restock fuel and oversee ongoing water production.

Until the New Zealand Red Cross arrived, many people in the affected areas had been drinking brackish well water, which was causing stomach and other health problems. New Zealand Red Cross delegate Ana Zarkovic, from Auckland, said that when the team arrived, the situation was reaching crisis point.

“Due to the limited supplies of fresh water drinking, some people were relying on coconuts, and using salty water for cooking. They were incredibly resourceful and resilient, but were running very short of supplies.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has deployed a small team of delegates to the Marshall Islands, including a member of the Pacific regional disaster response team from the Kiribati Red Cross Society. The IFRC is working closely with the Marshall Islands government, the UN and other partners to identify the ongoing and further recovery needs of affected communities.

It is uncertain how long the drought will continue, but one of the main concerns remains the distribution of water to the outer islands of Wotje, where households are in urgent need of drinking water and where a Red Cross reverse osmosis unit has been deployed.

Located in the North Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands lie halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The islands are made up of two archipelagic island chains with an estimated population of 69,747 spread over 34 low-lying coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets.

Like most countries in the Pacific region, the Marshall Islands increasingly face challenges from climate change and natural disasters. The islands have an average height of seven feet above sea level, which makes them susceptible to disasters, particularly storm surges and typhoons.