SEATTLE — The main sources of water supply in the Tuvalu islands, a low-lying atoll in the Pacific, are rainfall and rainwater harvesting. Pollution in lagoonal coasts (the bodies of water enclosed by islands and reefs) is endemic, with domestic wastewater deemed the primary culprit. Research found that domestic wastewater leaking from so-called “bottomless” (or unsealed from the bottom) septic tanks and pit toilets runs off to the lagoonal coast, carried by the tides.
The issue of water quality in Tuvalu is deeply concerning to government officials, who recognize that pollution remains a chronic problem and needs to be remediated. Wastewater runoff long since migrated toward the coast via groundwater, and coastal environments are chronically damaged.
The majority of the Tuvaluan islands have wells, which frequently tap into groundwater. Water is siphoned from these wells without regard for contamination and/or pollution. In the Funafuti atoll, the capital of Tuvalu, groundwater is used to wash pig pens, feed pigs, and flush toilets. Seawater has seeped inland, causing the water to become brackish.
Due to the poor wastewater management, changing rainfall patterns and increased flooding, Tuvalu’s nine inhabited islands are suffering damage to their entire ecosystem and fish stocks. The majority of Tuvaluans are subsistence fishermen, who are finding it more difficult to feed their families, much less address nutrition, dietary health and preserving their livelihoods.
Tupalaga Poulasi, a research officer in the fisheries department, described it this way to The Guardian: “We depend on the ocean,” he said. “This is where we get our resources. If we can’t catch fish, we have to go to the food shops. And then you have to bring money. Many families don’t have that much money.”
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), each Tuvaluan is limited to 40 liters of water per day. This is further restricted to 20 liters in times of drought. An extreme drought in 2011 forced the government to declare a statewide emergency.
UNDP’s Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) program made water resource management a foremost priority for the island’s inhabitants. It has helped address the problem of water quality in Tuvalu by building community resiliency. For example, in the Lofeagai village on Funafuti, installation of a water cistern provided the minimum 40-liters-per-day access to about 90 percent of the village population, even during periods of extreme drought. The community-led model was so successful that the water cistern is also helping meet the needs of the neighboring villages during extreme water shortages.
Loia Tausi, PACC Project Coordinator, said, “Through this project, we have managed to give the people of Lofeagai a major reserve of 700,000 liters of water so they have this extra supply to fall back on in their time of need… just knowing that it is there available and ready to help is easing the burden of worry for Lofeagai.”
Community awareness, education, participation and action are the recipe for success for water quality in Tuvalu. An institutional framework that translates policies and plans into action, together with community involvement in management of scarce freshwater resources, will preserve sustainable life for future generations.
– Mohammed Khalid