Tuvalu has declared a state of emergency relating to water shortages in the capital, Funafuti, and a number of outer islands. A New Zealand Defence Force C-130 left this morning to take supplies and personnel to Tuvalu. The supplies include two desalination units as well as water containers. Two Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff on board, including our Wellington-based High Commissioner, will remain in Tuvalu to help assess needs on the ground. New Zealand will be working with partners and other donors to consider the best medium-to-long-term response options.
Tuvalu, with 11,000 inhabitants, is not the only island nation in trouble. Tokelau, with 1400 inhabitants, has declared a state of emergency because fresh water supplies might run out in a few days. Samoa is rationing water also.
There appears to be a reasonable probability that there is a causal link between the drought and water scarcity affecting the islands and climate change.
First, Tuvalu and these other island states have been experiencing drought due to “the most severe La Nina weather patterns of the last 50 years”, according to the NZ Herald. Long range forecasts are currently suggesting a return to La Nina conditions over the NZ spring and summer.
Second, newspaper reports say that ground freshwater supplies have been affected by sea level rise due to global warming. This is certainly possible. For example, a 2007 paper on the salinity of groundwater in swamp taro pits in Tuvalu concluded that changes in sea level were likely to be among a number of factors increasing salinisation in the pits.
The risks of climate change are well understood in Tuvalu. The country’s Environment Protection Act 2008 provides for action on climate change action, and specifically provides for regulations to be made in relation to:
(a) … the protection and conservation of Tuvalu’s fresh water resources;
(b) … matters concerning drought prevention and response.
Unusually for domestic environmental legislation, the 2008 Act also requires government departments to work with the community and international agencies to “raise the level of understanding throughout the world about the implications of climate change, and activities which contribute to climate change, on Tuvalu and the future of its people” (section 29).
Tuvalu realises that concerted international action is the best way to deal with the problems that climate change is bringing. In the case of Tokelau, the NZ-administered territory must rely on our government to speak on its behalf and encourage actions worldwide to reduce emissions that threaten the future of the islands.
How active is the NZ government in their cause? Perhaps the Tokelau assembly, the General Fono, should send a “please explain” note to the government over its efforts this week to encourage oil exploration companies to undertake fresh drilling in NZ waters.