MAJURO — Thousands of gallons of drinking water and solar-powered water-making units are being rushed this week to drought-stricken populations in the Marshall Islands
“We’ve got 3,700 people without drinking water,” said national water advisor Tom Vance on Wednesday following a trip to Mejit Island.
Earlier this week, the United States and Australian governments announced $100,000 in emergency-aid grants as Marshall Islands officials elevated a drought “emergency” to a drought “disaster.”
With almost no rainfall since late last year on islands above eight degrees north of the equator, most have run out of drinking water and ground well water has turned salty and brackish. Health officials who tested the wells say the wells are unsafe to drink from. Drinking coconuts offer some relief, but there are no other sources of fresh water on these islands besides rain. “The situation is dire,” Vance said.
Four new reverse-osmosis water-making units provided by the U.S. government are expected to arrive later this week for installation on northern islands. More RO units are expected to be purchased and flown in to provide water relief, according to government Chief Secretary Casten Nemra, who is heading the emergency-relief program. Four hundred and fifty large, collapsible water containers donated by the U.S. government were filled with water in Majuro and sent to the stricken islands by ship Tuesday. Locally, groups are fundraising and collecting water and food donations for distribution on the outer islands.
“The situation will become increasingly desperate if this drought persists in the northern islands and atolls,” said Nemra. “We have yet to receive a full assessment from the deployed teams still out there but, through the radio, indications clearly are that the ground wells are not safe to drink from anymore while water tanks have been depleted in most of the affected communities.”
Several of the remote islands have RO water-making equipment. But the units are small, producing at most 300 gallons of water daily for island populations ranging from 100 to over 600 people.
The drought has severely damaged local food crops, and people’s lives and health are in imminent danger, Nemra said. Many of the affected communities have less than 11 days of drinking water left and are already rationing households to one gallon of drinking water for six people per day.
Several of the islands are reporting cases of diarrhea, conjunctivitis (pink eye), influenza and other illnesses that officials say are drought related. “The Northern Marshall Islands is suffering an incredible level of hardship and reports indicate that conditions will get worse in the coming days,” Nemra said. “We want to ensure that all affected communities in the Northern Marshall Islands get the assistance they need quickly and this declaration (of drought disaster) will give them access to all available resources of the government.”