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Tuvalu’s fresh water crisis deepens
Contamination of groundwater, scarce rain threaten way of life
Ms. Tovia, now a school teacher, said that during the last bad drought 14 years ago, she stayed up beside a well with her high school friends, telling each other stories to stay awake. As the ocean tide rose, she said, it would push fresh water up into the well, and they would take turns scooping it out, cup by cup.
This year’s drought on this isolated atoll in the South Pacific Ocean is equally severe, she said, but with a difference. People no longer turn to well water when the rains fail. It is too contaminated and salty to drink.
Experts say the contamination is caused in part by development and population growth. Part can also be attributed to greater recent tidal fluctuations, resulting in unusually high tides that have mixed salt water in with groundwater.
Tuvalu could become a bellwether for low-lying islands from the Maldives to Kiribati, where rising oceans could threaten to contaminate ground water to the point where it becomes unable to sustain life.
“Clearly one of the issues for all coral atolls is the limited fresh water available,” said Ian Fry, a climate lecturer at National University of Australia who also works as an international environmental officer for the Tuvalu government. “It’s one of the greatest problems.”
For now, Tuvalu islanders are not focused on this potential long-term threat. They are preoccupied with the immediate challenge of providing fresh water to their families.
The atoll of Funafuti is a snaking sliver of coral just 100 yards across in many places and rising no higher than 15 feet. It forms a divide between the ocean and a sparkling lagoon, but it has grown crowded and polluted despite its idyllic backdrop.
A natural weather pattern known as La Nina has settled over the region and deprived Tuvalu of any substantial rainfall for six months. Weather linked to La Nina also has been blamed for the higher tides.
Forecasters say it could be another three months before the rains return.
The situation became so dire that two weeks ago, Tuvalu and neighboring Tokelau each declared a state of emergency. The Red Cross along with the governments of New Zealand, Australia and the United States averted a catastrophe by rushing in supplies of bottled water and desalination plants.
Even this has proved barely enough.
“For my kids, I want to take them to a place where there is plenty of water,” she said.
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