Protecting drinking water from droughts and sea level rise in the Marshall Islands

The 2013 drought took a toll on the ecosystems of the Marshall Islands atoll, leaving a trail of damage that will last several years. UNDP Photo

By the time the government declared a state of emergency last year, the wells had long run dry in the drought-stricken northern reaches of the Marshall Islands, and families had started fleeing towards the capital Majuro.

Located north east of New Zealand, these picture-perfect idyllic islands are set so low in the Pacific that there are few freshwater reservoirs or sources of groundwater. In September 2012 when the rains failed, it led to a twin crisis of drinking water shortages and damaged crops across the atoll.  

By late February, “our breadfruit, pandanus, banana, and coconut trees were dying, the salinity level of underground lenses [freshwater sources] were high, and household water catchments had run dry,” remembers Nathan Jake, a resident and school teacher on the tiny Ujae Atoll.


  • In 2013, the Marshall Islands suffered an extreme drought that threatened drinking water and crops. 20 per cent of the population was affected.
  • With support from UNDP, the government has improved rainwater collection in the capital city of Majuro and installed solar-powered water purifiers in more remote areas.
  • The reservoir project has increased Majuro’s freshwater stores, which can now last the city 3-4 months in an emergency.
  • 186 solar water purifiers will be delivered to far-reaching communities throughout the country.

When the rains finally did arrive eight months later, 11,000 people had already been affected by the drought  - about 20 per cent of the population of the Marshall Islands. Aid agencies warned that it would take months to replenish freshwater sources and bring crops back on the cracked fields.

Unfortunately for the residents of these islands, freshwater crises are becoming more and more common.

With climate change causing more extreme weather events, the Marshall Islands finds itself with too much sea water rising and not enough fresh water falling. The 34 islands that make up the atoll nation are only an average of 3-4 metres above sea level, and will be heavily inundated with a 1-metre rise in sea level. Coupled with changes in rainfall patterns, the country’s already limited fresh water is at risk. In a recent speech on climate change, the country’s president Christopher Loeak said “I fear that life in the Marshall Islands may soon become like living in a war zone.”

Recognising the urgency of the dwindling water supply, the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) Programme is working to increase the availability and quality of drinking water in the Marshall Islands. So far it has helped improve the collection and storage of rainwater in the Majuro reservoir and installed solar water purifiers in more remote areas. 

In Majuro, the airport runway is the island’s largest paved area, making it an ideal surface to collect rainwater. Once collected, the water is then diverted, treated, and piped into a reservoir. The existing reservoir and catchment systems were outdated and unable to keep up with demand. Working with the local water authority, the programme has since increased the capacity of the airport reservoir from 121 million litres to 138 million litres. A new lining and cover have been fitted to one of the main tanks, reducing loss from seepage and evaporation.

The results are dramatic: previously Majuro’s fresh water reserves lasted only 3-4 weeks. Now with the enhanced storage capacity and reduced evaporation, the city will be able to endure a drought of up to 3-4 months.  “The benefits from the relining and cover more clean, safe and abundant water for all,” says Alington Robert, the Majuro Water and Sewer Company’s Administrative and Human Resource Manager, who helped with the project.

For Marshallese residents who live in even more remote areas, there is not enough open land to depend on rainwater catchments alone. In these cases, solar purifiers can produce clean drinking water by using the sun’s energy to evaporate the water and leave contaminants and salt behind.

“The great potential of these units is to provide drinking water during drought periods, when rainwater tanks dry up and there are no other sources of drinking water available. They have zero maintenance, 20 year lifespan, light weight and only takes 10-20 minutes to assemble.” says Joseph Cain, project coordinator for the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Programme.

Through additional funding by the Australian government, 186 solar purifiers with 56 solar pumps have already been ordered for the hospital centers in the outer islands. 

Championed by the Government of the Marshall Islands and the Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination, this project is overseen by UNDP with financing from the Global Environment Facility's Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF).  Project execution is supported by Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

“With project support to charter our trips to remote islands, people living in these outer islands now know how to test and treat their water catchments,” says Jina David, of the College of Marshall Islands and Land Grant. David  along with a team from the Ministry of Health have so far delivered six solar purifiers for the first time to Jaluit Atoll, and plan to deliver more in the months ahead.

What started as a response to last year’s drought is pointing the way toward longer-term solutions. By making plans and investments now, the people of the Marshall Islands will be better prepared to face the next drought head on. “This is an important achievement for our country,” said Joseph Cain. “Water security is one of the biggest challenges for small low-lying islands, and we also need to factor in the uncertainties of climate change. Practical steps like these help us to face the uncertainties with more confidence.”

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