Aid worker diary: Drought in the Marshall Islands

5 Jun 2013

In early May, a ‘drought disaster’ was declared across the northern outreaches of the Marshall Islands – a small nation of about 54,000 people spread across 1,200 islands, islets and atolls in the northern Pacific. Credit: OCHA
Months of very little rain have left parts of the Marshall Islands facing severe water shortages and growing food insecurity.

In early May, a drought disaster was declared across the northern outreaches of the Marshall Islands – a small nation of about 54,000 people spread across 1,200 islands, islets and atolls in the northern Pacific. The announcement followed months of little or no rain which saw limited fresh water supplies dwindle.

About 11,000 people are believed to be affected. At the request of the government, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team was deployed to help manage the humanitarian response. Marcus Werne, the Deputy head of OCHA’s Asia Pacific regional office, was sent to the Marshall Islands to lead the team.

It takes 36 hours to travel from Bangkok, where I am normally based, to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. The journey takes you via the Philippines and Guam, before a series of short flights between several Micronesian and Marshallese atolls. I have worked for many years in the Pacific, but the complexity of travelling between its islands and nations still amazes me.

The Majuro atoll, like the other 33 atolls that make up the Marshalls, consists of a rough circle of small coral islands circled around the mouth of an extinct, submerged volcano. Thousands of years of Pacific winds mean that the islands rise only a few meters above the ocean - the highest point in Majuro is a mere three metres above sea level. Majuro Island itself is only nine square kilometres.

In any context, ready access to fresh water can mean the difference between life and death. This feels even more important for people living in the remote outer islands of the Marshalls, where any external assistance needs to be shipped at great expense. The concept of resilience is very real out here.

In mid-April, following months without any meaningful rain, fresh water started to run out in the northern atolls. At that time the government declared a state of emergency. Then, following a series of assessments, the President declared a state of drought disaster for his country on 8 May.

About 11,000 people are believed to be affected – that’s about one fifth of the entire population. Recognizing this, the government asked that an UNDAC team be deployed. Our role is to help the government assess needs and coordinate incoming international assistance.

Once we had finally arrived, our first step was to establish a base of operations in the Government’s Emergency Operations Centre. There were already a number of humanitarian organizations responding to the crisis – including government ministries, the Red Cross, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). We worked with the government to map where they were and what they were doing, and to make sure that the growing humanitarian response was coordinated, and followed the Humanitarian Action Plan that the government was developing.

We also supported the government to rally much needed international assistance. Since the drought disaster was declared, 17 reverse osmosis units have arrived in Majuro and been sent to the drought affected atolls. These units turn salt water into fresh, potable water. These will ensure that people have something to drink, but they are not a long-term solution.

My mission to the Marshalls was only short. I felt it was an example of how a small and timely OCHA deployment can make a difference to a disaster affected government by empowering national authorities to manage incoming assistance more effectively. But our work is by no means done.

At the end of May, the government’s national water advisor told Radio New Zealand that although the reverse osmosis units are providing people with water, they are not helping address concerns about food insecurity.

“Most of the breadfruit trees have died and the local food has decreased as a result of the drought,” he said. “Also one of our islands, it’s called Enewetak, that’s the driest island, they’ve had such a problem with the drought that all of their local food crops have collapsed, and they’ve had an extreme problem trying to get any food into the island.”

Dry weather is expected to continue until at least June. Our goal is to help people get through this period. But in the longer-term, we need to also look at how we can better tackle some of the root causes of this vulnerability, and help communities avoid needing to rely on costly international support.