Notes from the Field

Dispatch from Micronesia: Mitigating Water Insecurity through Disaster Preparedness

March 20, 2013

My colleague Lisa Hook and I are currently in the Pacific Island countries of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), two small island states that face some of the highest risks of natural disasters and climate change. We are here to examine issues and challenges surrounding disaster preparedness, relief, and reconstruction. While in consultations with the Micronesia Conservation Trust and Conservation Society of Pohnpei, representatives shared details about the high risk of water shortages that the outer atolls in FSM and RMI experience annually, particularly in the Yap state of FSM.

Micronesia

A majority of goods need to be imported to these Pacific Island countries, including many food supplies, fuel, construction commodities, and during a disaster, relief and reconstruction supplies. Photo/Lisa Hook

The FSM constitutes four major island groups totaling 607 islands with a population of 106,487, and the RMI is made up of two archipelagic island chains of 29 atolls, each with many small islets, and five single islands with a population of 68,480. Due in part to climate change and also to climate variability, such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, water insecurity is becoming more severe and more frequent on atolls and islets throughout both of these island nations, which are largely dependent on rainfall as their main fresh water source. Droughts have a severe impact on water availability and quality, agricultural and energy production, and ecosystem health. Depending on the acuteness of water shortages, in some instances, outer atolls have had to seek emergency assistance from state and national government agencies.

Despite this reality, conservation organizations that we have met with said that vulnerability is also a result of a lack of preparedness and capacity to adapt to changes in climate. They expressed an urgent need to develop better drought monitoring and risk management systems, and for outer atolls to have frameworks in place to manage drought risks through integrated methods, including water catchment systems, reverse osmosis machines, and improved watershed management. The FSM in particular needs to develop a coordinated national drought policy. There is also a need for improved monitoring and early warning systems to deliver timely information to decision makers, effective impact assessment procedures, proactive risk management measures, preparedness plans to increase coping capacities, and effective emergency response programs to reduce the impact of droughts.

Mangroves in Micronesia

Mangroves are important to protecting against large ocean waves and salinity intrusion. There are efforts to manage these natural resources, conducted in part by the Conservation Society of Pohnpei, but competing factors, such as local people using them for firewood and coastal development pose some threats. Photo/Lisa Hook

Predictive climate data can also be a powerful tool to increase drought resilience. Small island developing states, like FSM and RMI, can utilize improvements in climate prediction capabilities. The conservation societies warned though that better dissemination and understanding of such information and services, especially for the most vulnerable, is needed in order for them to be helpful. This begins with increasing public awareness about climate change, climate change adaptation, and disaster preparedness. Local conservation societies that are working to educate communities in the outer atolls on water insecurity have the available indigenous resources and talents that can be tapped by larger international organizations to provide the in-depth knowledge and understanding of the local context in order to more effectively implement ecologically sensitive interventions.

Read about The Asia Foundation’s work in the Pacific Islands to prepare communities for effective disaster management.

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program officer and Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. They can be reached at kbrown@asiafound.org and lhook@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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