Tuvalu’s crippling drought offers important lessons to the Pacific
As Tuvalu enters its second week of a drought induced national emergency, important lessons are emerging on the nature of climate change impacts in the Pacific and how island communities can best prepare their climate defences.
Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on captured rainfall for its drinking water, supplemented by a limited desalinated supply. Without immediate rain, government and community storages on the main island of Funafuti could be depleted in less than two weeks.
Noa Tokavou, disaster management adviser with Secretariat of the Pacific Communities’ (SPC) Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC), has just returned from Tuvalu’s parched capital, where he was assisting Government to plan for future disasters and climate change.
“On Funafuti, families are now down to rations of 40 litres of fresh water per day,” he said. “Luckily some initial help has arrived in the form of desalination units from the New Zealand Red Cross, and work is continuing around the clock to fix some of the larger mobile units so they can be put to use in Funafuti and in the outer islands.”
As difficult as the current drought is, Mr Tokavou feels that some good can come from the experience. “The dry conditions are highlighting areas in which Tuvalu remains vulnerable to drought, and also where more work can be done to address this,” he said. “Tuvaluans are realising that building their resilience to current extreme conditions can be a key part of their defence against future disasters and climate change”
SOPAC water management adviser, Dave Hebblethwaite, also recently returned from Tuvalu, where he joined a Government-led team to assess the impacts of the drought on the heavily impacted island of Nukulaelae.
“The first thing you notice when you arrive on Nukulaelae is just how dry it is”, he said. “The undergrowth crackles under foot, and salt is crusting on the ground where crops such as pulaka used to grow.”
Pulaka, or swamp taro, is a staple crop for Tuvalu, but the dry conditions on Nukulaelae have already affected the vast majority of pulaka pits.
“Tuvaluans are amongst the most resilient people on earth,” Mr Hebblethwaite said. “But it’s also clear that communities can do much more to improve their preparedness for dry times.”
Steps to conserve and protect water are already underway in Funafuti, where Tuvalu is leading the region in water conservation initiatives. These include the installation of new rainwater tanks and community cisterns, and the construction of composting toilets that reduce both water use and groundwater pollution. The toilets reduce household water use by about 30%, and are also providing a valuable source of safe organic soil conditioner for gardens in a country with virtually no soil. Tuvalu is leading the Pacific with this home-grown technology, and countries such as Nauru, Tonga and the Marshall Islands have requested help from Tuvalu to develop similar composting technology.
However, Noa Tokavou believes more needs to be done. “Maintaining and improving guttering on roofs, maximizing the amount of roof area that collects rainfall, and implementing drought management plans – these are all concrete steps that can be taken to strengthen Tuvalu’s resilience to drought and climate change,” he said. “By collecting rainfall records on outer islands and monitoring trends in groundwater salinity, communities can equip themselves with the practical information needed to help them adapt.”
SOPAC is working with the Tuvalu Meteorological Service to examine recent rainfall patterns and assess the likely outlook. SOPAC water assessment advisor, Peter Sinclair, has been analysing the data, and notes that the past 12 months are the second driest in Funafuti's 78 years of records. “It’s been very dry indeed, but rain will certainly fall between now and next year’s dry season. The question is whether Tuvalu’s roofs and gutters are in a condition to collect as much of this rainfall as possible so to avoid a potentially more serious situation next year.”
SOPAC’s Information and Communications Technology Adviser, Sakaio Manoa, was born and raised on Nukulaelae, and, like many Tuvaluans living overseas, is following the situation with concern.
“Nukulaelae is no stranger to drought,” he said. “The people there are used to coping with long dry spells. It’s part of life on a small atoll. But the situation now is particularly hard, and the fact that the people have asked for outside assistance shows just how serious it has become.”
“All Tuvaluans, wherever they are, are hoping and praying that rain will come soon,” he said. “We also pray that the next time we are faced with a situation like this, we are prepared”.
SOPAC is collaborating with other regional partners to support the Tuvalu drought response through a cluster group led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
Dave Hebblethwaite: email@example.com , mobile +679 998 3059
Photos and video footage are available on request.