SEATTLE — The idyllic Republic of Marshall Islands is a remote atoll just three to four feet above sea level. Encircled on all sides by the North Pacific, this tiny archipelago has suffered its share of big problems. Extreme drought, dwindling freshwater resources and drinking water problems are just a few of its latest struggles. Though the Marshall Islands gained independence in 1986, the republic is in free association with the United States. Last year, the island suffered its worst-ever drought, prompting then-President Obama to declare a state of emergency.
Most people in the Marshall Islands live on the coral atoll of Majuro, the capital and largest city. But even in this populous area, freshwater is hard to procure. Water resources vary: runoff water from airport runways feeds reservoirs, freshwater lenses (rain water which floats on salt water) are occasionally available, and tanks collect runoff from roofs. Structurally-sound desalination plants and reverse osmosis units can convert seawater into potable water. About 60 percent of residents rely on imported bottled water or rainwater catchment. In remote areas, solar water purifiers are also installed.
A 2016 study by Environmental Protection Agency research hydrologist Bill Shuster found that water quality in the Marshall Islands varied with location. For instance, the freshwater lens in eastern urban areas was not as readily rechargeable as those on the rural western side of the island. In a seven-week long trip to Majuro with his colleagues, Shuster brought attention to the issues of water security for residents in part due to the continuing effects of climate change.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has reported that the 34 islands that comprise the remote atoll are in danger of being inundated by rising sea levels and dwindling fresh water supplies. In a 2004 speech on climate change, then-president Christopher Loeak feared that “life in the Marshall Islands may soon become like living in a war zone.” UNDP’s Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) programe has aimed to strengthen the islands’ water resource management by increasing the availability and monitoring the quality of potable water. This promising development is likely to help improve water quality in the Marshall Islands.
Unfortunately, bacterial contamination is rampant in island water sources. Tuvuki Ketedromo, Chief of Water Quality Division at the Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority (MIEPA), reported that half of the samples taken from the Majuro city water company’s fresh water piping system were contaminated with total coliform and E. coli (disease-causing bacteria from human and animal waste). Tellingly, household catchments were just as contaminated as the water systems in urban areas.
Data showed an increasing prevalence of water-borne diseases as pollution remains an endemic problem in the islands. For instance, in testing conducted by the MIEPA, nine out of ten ocean and lagoon locations in Majuro simply failed water quality standards. Untreated, raw sewage was dumped on the oceanside, brown-algae-blanketed reef. Ocean currents coursed the sewage to the island’s shores, the very same places residents and visitors swam and fished. Waste from pig pens polluted the lagoons. Residents used rubbish-strewn beaches as toilets.
Marshallese face real obstacles to their future and livelihood due to climate change, pollution, contamination, and a lack of general awareness. Water quality in the Marshall Islands remains a pressing issue. However, hope can still prevail in dire conditions provided that it is preceded by recognition of what is at stake. As Marshall Islands Senator and Vice President Tony de Brum said in 2003, “We are running out of drinking water. The bananas and limes and grapefruits are dying because the water underneath them is salty. It’s real and the people cannot help but talk about it. As they line up for their drinking water, I’m sure that’s all they are talking about.”
– Mohammed Khalid