Climate Change News

Worsening Water Crisis in the Eastern Caribbean

Scientists, policy makers, and residents are concerned that ongoing water shortages and longer periods of drought may worsen as the climate changes and that the Paris Agreement has fallen short.

By Sarah Peter

For years, people living in the eastern Caribbean have not had reliable supplies of fresh water: Their homes might go for months without running showers or flushing toilets, let alone potable fresh water on tap.

The region suffers from a severe and worsening water crisis, and this year is breaking records. In May, the government of Saint Lucia declared a water emergency for the island’s approximately 180,000 residents. In a Facebook post in early June, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet raised the alarm that the country is “currently experiencing drought conditions said to be the worst in more than 50 years.” The island’s sole reservoir is at “alarmingly low water levels,” Chastanet said, owing to lower than average rainfall made worse by heavy siltation that has reduced the reservoir’s capacity by “a whopping 30%.”

Although they contribute far less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, small island nations like the ones that make up the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States are among the first to experience the most destructive impacts of climate change: sea level rise, increased storm activity, and coastal erosion. One of the inevitable casualties is water supply.

“We are already seeing it. It’s like we do not actually have a rainy season in the Caribbean,” said Judith Gobin, a marine biologist at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Climate change has shifted the hydrological cycle in the region, with more intense rainfall and longer dry spells.

Venantius Descartes, senior meteorologist at Saint Lucia Meteorological Services, said that paradoxically, increases in storms and hurricanes as a result of climate change have exacerbated the island’s water shortage. As bigger storms bring more water, they destroy infrastructure and lead to contamination, affecting the distribution and quality of the water supply in the region.

The hurricane season this year has already seen two named storms in June, the first month of the Caribbean hurricane season. That’s “too soon,” according to Dale Destin, a climatologist and director of the Antigua and Barbuda Meteorological Services. The phenomenon has happened only four times since 1886.

Missing Water

Tamisha Daniel, a resident of Bois Patat, Saint Lucia, fears that the current water shortage may become worse. At times when there is “not a drop of water in the house,” taking care of her newborn son can feel daunting, said the mother of two. “When to bathe him and to wash his clothes, it’s a bit of a challenge because we do not have the water, and to make it worse, it’s not raining. So you can’t collect water…and it’s so hot!” Daniel considers herself lucky, as a neighboring community, Odlum City, has not seen pipe-borne water for over 2 months.

Cleon Athill is vice president of The Movement, an environmental organization that works toward good governance on the island of Antigua, which has a population of over 80,000.

“We see our dams and wells drying up, and our drought periods are getting longer and drier,” Athill said. “Farmers suffer the most, they depend on piped water, but this is inadequate and inconsistent. Many residents must haul or buy water, which can be a burden for deprived communities.”

The water company that supplies Saint Lucia, for example, relies on the reservoir and river flows, but those flows have been unreliable. Storms might muddy the waters enough that even after treatment the taps deliver sediment-laden water. The company rations water at times, leading residents to seek out friends and acquaintances in other neighborhoods with running taps or to collect untreated water from rivers and waterfalls.

Small island nations throughout the eastern Caribbean are experiencing a similar plight. Tourism dependent, most of the large hotels and resorts that cater to foreign visitors are owned by foreign companies that treat wastewater on site for reuse as nonpotable water and can maintain water tanks filled with tap water. Meanwhile, most local communities do not have the space or funding for large water storage tanks, which can hold enough for months.

Previous drought has led to such measures as charging farmers for extracting water from certain rivers in Trinidad and Tobago and asking residents in Barbados to adopt voluntary conservation methods. Rain-fed agriculture in these island nations means that drought can lead to food insecurity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned in a 2016 report.

Too Little, Too Late?

Signatories of the Paris Agreement, which came into force in 2016 and builds on years of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2℃, instead of a far more ambitious target of 1.5℃, as requested by small island developing states (SIDS). A long-term global temperature increase above 1.5℃ would be disastrous to SIDS and the eastern Caribbean, contributing to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and loss of habitats.

At the heart of the Paris Agreement is the Green Climate Fund, intended to help the eastern Caribbean region and other SIDS by providing billions of dollars for climate adaptation projects. The initial resource mobilization of $10.3 billion fell to $9.8 billion after the United States withdrew $2 billion of the $3 billion that was initially pledged.

Islands in the eastern Caribbean have received funding from other sources, said Gobin, who participated in past projects focused on coastal livelihood strategies. However, she contends the money is not properly spent, with funding going toward administration and foreign consultants, instead of to the technical aspects of local projects.

“What comes out of this is a lovely report that describes situations. But it lacks that practical aspect for a clean supply of water,” Gobin said. She called for a reexamination of this approach.

Cardinal Warde, a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a scientific adviser to the government of Barbados, agreed. “I believe that people in poor communities have reason to believe not much is going to happen,” he said.

“Even if there is funding from the Green Climate Fund to deal with adaptation and mitigation,” said Eden Charles, a former United Nations ambassador who was the lead negotiator for Trinidad and Tobago for the Paris Agreement, “that doesn’t trickle down sufficiently to deal with the plight of the rural poor—the farmers, artisans, and workers—and doesn’t deal with whether the fisherman is being impacted and whether there is a greater impact of coastal erosion.”

Charles also noted that the Paris Agreement is based on voluntary commitments: “If there is a breach, there is no recourse; if it was legally binding, there would be,” he said. One of the largest signatories of the agreement, the United States, has decided to withdraw, a decision that will become effective this November.

The Paris Agreement is “too little, too late,” said Destin. “The forecast is for us to get drier in the future [in the eastern Caribbean]. We have missed or [are] about to miss the point of return. We are pretty much at the point where we cannot do enough to prevent hazardous climate change.”

—Sarah Peter (@SarahPeter3), Science Writer

Citation: Peter, S. (2020), Worsening water crisis in the eastern Caribbean, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO147278. Published on 22 July 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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