Tuvalu Goes Dry

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From TIME’s Allison Berry:

The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu has declared a state of emergency because it has only several days’ worth of fresh water remaining, after being ravaged by an extended drought.  Neighboring New Zealand and Australia have stepped in and offered to provide desalination equipment, which would keep the islands from running dry.  Australia is also sending rehydration packs for use in hospitals, as well as money and fuel for the desalination plants.  Residents are currently rationing water, with those in the capital of Funafuti down to two buckets a day, but the crisis point has already been reached.

“The advice is that more capacity is needed to relieve the acute water shortage and replenish stocks,” said New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, in a statement to the press. “The large Army desalination equipment can produce a good volume.  It will help ease the critical shortage and should provide a sufficient buffer if the dry period continues as expected.”

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The country has suffered a drought during the past six months because of the La Niña weather pattern, which has curtailed rain in the region.  Tuvalu’s groundwater has been contaminated by rising sea levels and is not drinkable, so rainfall is critical to fulfilling its water needs.

Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu lies just below the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, and is comprised of nine coral atolls.  It is the fourth-smallest country on the planet, with a landmass of 10 sq. mi. (25 sq km).  Just under 11,000 residents call it home, half of whom reside in the capital. The high point of the islands is only about 15 ft. (5 m) above sea level, leaving it vulnerable to rising waters brought by climate change.

Neighboring Tokelau is also in a similar predicament and has declared its own state of emergency.  The U.S. Coast Guard is delivering 36,000 gal. (136,275 L) of fresh water to Tokelau, in concert with a team from New Zealand that is providing additional supplies.

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Numerous other islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are threatened by rising sea waters, including the Maldives and the Seychelles.  As the waters warm, they will expand; combined with the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, this spells trouble.  Seas are predicted to rise up to 24 in. (60 cm) in the next hundred years, which could imperil thousands of coastal residents in low-lying areas. Unless stronger worldwide action on greenhouse gas emissions is taken, island nations like Tuvalu are in danger of disappearing entirely.

Allison Berry is a contributor at TIME. You can continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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