MAJURO, Marshall Islands — A few yards from the crashing waves of the Pacific, on a precariously narrow strip of land, precious rainwater pools on the runway of the Marshall Islands’ main airport. This is how the government hydrates tens of thousands of its citizens: the rainwater runoff from the airstrip. The water — complete with bird droppings and whatever else has landed on the tarmac — is funneled via pipes to earthen storage reservoirs. From there, it gets filtered and treated and pumped to people down the atoll.
During a normal week the water only flows for 12 hours. In prolonged droughts, which are almost certain to happen in 2016, the reservoirs can get depleted to the last drop. The country can hold on for only a few months without rain. Thirsty Marshallese, many of whom rely on their own much smaller rainwater catchment containers, won’t have anything to drink or wash with. Dehydration, starvation, malnutrition and disease have been known to follow. Crops fail. Sensitive groundwater reservoirs become contaminated.
This is a bleak outlook for a vulnerable country in the remote Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The Marshall Islands are a heavenly chain of white sandy beaches and coral reefs, but they are paradoxically one of the most inhospitable and challenging places to build a nation. Climate change will have numerous, complicated effects here. Access to freshwater, already in limited supply on the archipelago, is likely to become the most serious issue.
“It can become very complex very quickly,” Bill Shuster, a research hydrologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told The WorldPost. “Nothing really prepared me for how closely connected everything is, how tightly coupled public health is to rainfall.”