Last year, the Pacific country of Tuvalu experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Schools and hospitals were forced to close their doors due to water shortages, and clean drinking water had to be flown in from overseas to meet the immediate needs of the people. Australia was a key player in the disaster response at that time, and one year on we are continuing to work with Tuvalu to address its long-term water challenges.
Tuvalu is extremely vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns and rising sea levels. A small island nation located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu is made up of four reef islands and five atolls with a land area of only 26 square kilometres. On average, the country sits at only two metres above sea level. The two major factors leading to last year’s shortage of drinking water were extremely limited rainfall for more than six months, and rising sea levels which have contaminated drinkable groundwater with salt water.
The Government of Tuvalu was forced to declare a state of emergency last September. At this time, the capital of Funafuti was down to just two to three days of water. Schools had to close as there was not enough water available for drinking or for sanitation facilities.
Australia provided $1.4 million in response to the drought emergency and to support Tuvalu’s longer-term water security. We supplied fuel to operate existing desalination units and water supply trucks, and worked with New Zealand to deliver one million litres of clean drinking water. We funded 607 water tanks for residents on Funafuti and 150 water tanks for schools on outer islands. We also financed a further three solar-powered desalination units – one jointly with the United States and the United Kingdom – to increase clean drinking water supplies in the future.
The final desalination unit was officially opened last month. This will significantly improve the supply of freshwater across the country and lessen the risk of another disaster like last year’s water shortage. Helping Tuvalu to better adapt to the impacts of climate change is a priority for the Australian aid program. With sea levels projected to continue rising, addressing issues of water security is vital for the wellbeing of Tuvaluans.