Depending on rainfall
Surrounded by water, a drought is the last thing you would expect on the tiny island nations of the Pacific. However, when it fails to rain on these islands, finding water is a big problem. Climate change is leading to increased variability in rainfall and drought, adding to the problems caused by storms and sea level rise. The culture of the people of Tuvalu is strongly connected to the land, so they are determined to stay put and deal with the problems rather than move elsewhere.
The coral island nation of Tuvalu has an average elevation of just one metre and in some places it is only a few metres wide. There are no streams or rivers so most of the population relies on rainwater collection for their household water supply. Some families have limited water storage with 3,500-litre tanks collecting rain from the small iron roofing of the cooking shelters (traditional homes have thatched roofs). In times of drought, families draw water from wells mainly for non-potable uses such as washing and bathing. The 4,500 people living in the capital, Funafuti, rely on the government to transport water to their homes from the desalination plant.
Hardly a drop to drink
On 28 September 2011, six months without rain led the Government of Tuvalu to declare a state of emergency. Most of the stored water had been used. The government was struggling to maintain the desalination plant and it could not produce sufficient water. Seawater and human waste had contaminated the groundwater as a result of sea level rise, overuse and leakage from septic toilets.
Water was rationed to 40 litres per household, and families had to make choices about whether to use water for sanitation, drinking, cooking, washing or bathing. Good practices prevented any rise in the outbreaks of infections, skin diseases and diarrhoea. There were food shortages as coconut, breadfruit trees and banana plants died and pulaka, swamp taro, rotted. People could not afford to buy imported fruit and vegetables. The fishing industry lost income as there was limited water for processing fish and no ice for storing the catch. Schools were forced to close with no water to flush toilets.
The governments of Australia and New Zealand, and the Red Cross worked together to address the impact of the drought. They shipped water and supplied trucks so water could be distributed. They repaired the desalination plant and provided fuel to operate it. They provided emergency desalination plants to boost production of fresh water and undertook an assessment of the drought in the outer islands.
To improve preparedness for low rainfall in to the future, 10,000-litre water tanks were installed and guttering on houses was improved so more water could be collected and stored. Education and awareness campaigns introduced people to ways of using less water for hygiene but staying healthy. The Red Cross and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society began issuing user-friendly three-month forecasts to help people plan for times of low rainfall.
Introducing composting toilets
The flush and septic toilets were using about 30 per cent of valuable drinking water and polluting the groundwater. Septic pollution was also killing the reefs meaning fisherfolk had to spend more on fuel to travel further away to catch fish.
A program to build composting toilets and educating people about using them was begun so that water use and pollution could be reduced. There were workshops to build demonstration toilets, and develop understanding about their advantages and using the compost for gardening. Changing behaviour about toilets is difficult, as some people do not like to talk about such personal things. In Tuvalu, especially in the outer islands, there was the extra challenge of the no-cost option of people 'using the beach'.
Once people realised the composting toilets did not smell, saved water, provided compost and were easy to maintain, there was an increased demand. 'The compost from these toilets and the water saved enables households to grow their own food. It is a great cost saving to them,' said Mr Pisi Seleganiu, project manager for the project.
Sharing the knowledge
People are making changes to the way they live, not only to save water and improve their environment and food security, but also to save their future and their destiny. The work in Tuvalu has also generated a lot of interest around the Pacific. Tonga has built demonstration toilets, Nauru has installed them in schools and the Marshall Islands are planning construction soon.
Australian Aid, Tuvalu
Pacific Neighbours: Understanding the Pacific Islands