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Kiribati people depend on potable well water, this supply has been affected by climate change

Kiribati to Celebrate World Water Day

Kiribati people depend on potable well water, this supply has been affected by climate change

Kiribati people depend on potable well water, this supply has been affected by climate change

Kiribati will be celebrating World Water Day on 24 March 2014 at the Bairiki Square in Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa, focusing on this year’s Kiribati theme ‘Water and Climate Change’.

People in Kiribati depend on potable ground water in wells and from rainwater, but this supply of water has been directly affected by climate change.

The ground water supply in South Tarawa is dependent on the size of the land area and as this diminishes as a result of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, so does the size of the water lens. This situation applies to all of the other islands of Kiribati.

Public Utilities Board (PUB), CEO, Kevin Rouatu said, Kiribati is like a floating ship with limited fresh water from its water lens, and despite the heavy rainfall that Kiribati has been blessed with in the past months, our water lens can only hold just a small percentage of the total rainfall.

“South Tarawa depends largely on the reservoirs in Buota and Bonriki so it is very vital for people to save the water they get from the main water system and not waste it”. Said Kevin Rouatu.

“KAPIII’s objective is to increase the resilience of Kiribati to the impacts of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal protection as a priority by the government of Kiribati”. Said Kautuna Kaitara, Program Manager for KAPIII.

“Our aim is to improve the water reticulation system on South Tarawa through leakage detection and repairs, to increase rainwater harvesting and to build abstraction galleries”, he said.

With regards to sustaining the Buota and Bonriki water reserves, Mr Kaitara said, KAPIII will be assisting in supporting the Government of Kiribati Water Committee by ensuring governance and sustainability of the systems in Bonriki and Buota villages.

“If water in this area is contaminated there will be no drinkable water to the 40 thousand plus population on South Tarawa and it will be catastrophic and costly for the people of South Tarawa compared to the  cost from a tsunami disaster”. Mr Kaitara said.

The Kiribati government through the Ministry of Public Works and Utilities, the Ministry of Health the Kiribati Adaptation Program – Phase III (KAPIII) Public Utilities Board, SMEC and GCCA have joined efforts to make the most of this year’s World Water Day celebrations.

Also read: Reducing leakage in Tarawa, World Water Day 2013, Why Tarawa needs water reserves
Follow the discussion and view pictures of Monday’s event on our Facebook page 

Kiribati Adaptation Program - Phase III Project Manager Kautuna Kaitara

Why Tarawa needs water reserves

Q&A With Kiribati Adaptation Program – Phase III Project Manager Kautuna Kaitara

What is a water reserve?

A water reserve is an area of land that is reserved for the extraction of water. That is, no other activities are allowed on this land except pumping of water.

What is the purpose of a water reserve?

The purpose of declaring a water reserve is to minimise pollution of the water in this area. Water reserves are common throughout the world – in Australia the catchment areas for dams are normally some sort of reserve area.

Why is it important to have water reserves in Kiribati?

In Kiribati it is extremely important because we only have very limited water treatment and to provide additional treatment would be extremely expensive in terms of both initial outlay and operating expenses.

We want people to be healthy and have healthy drinking water. That’s why it is important to stop people toileting on the land, and pigs and other livestock using the land because that can introduce potentially very harmful bacteria. Agricultural activities, such as growing of vegetables, can also introduce harmful chemicals such as nitrates.

These aren’t the only issues. The mining of sand and gravel from the area can introduce pollutants in the process, and leaves the lens much more vulnerable because it removes a layer of protection of the water. Industrial and other activities, such as fixing of cars and letting cars die on the reserves, can also introduce very harmful chemicals and petrochemicals.

Why is ground water on South Tarawa polluted?

Given that the population density of South Tarawa is so high, and polluting activities take place on almost all the land of South Tarawa, the water lens underlying South Tarawa is extremely polluted and is not suitable for human consumption, probably even after boiling. There used to be water reserves at Betio and Teaoreareke as well as Buota and Bonriki, but the first two had to be abandoned due to population growth. The water reserves are 50-metres or more inland from the edge of the land so you would need considerable overtopping before they are affected and there are people living on the edge who will be affected long before climate change affects the water reserves.

Is there an unlimited supply of water in the water reserve?

No. The other important factor with the water lenses are that they have a limited holding capacity and if you overpump them it causes the mixing of the fresh and salt water. This will take a generation to repair if it is well mixed. It is critical that the water reserves are not extracted beyond the sustainable yield.

Facts about KAPIII

The Kiribati Adaptation Program- Phase III (KAPIII) is a five-year project under the Office of the President and funded via the World Bank GEF LDCF Trust Fund with co financing from the governments of Australia and Japan, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery partnership, as well as in-kind from the Government of Kiribati.

The objective of KAPIII is to improve the resilience of Kiribati to the impacts of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal infrastructure.

Freshwater supply projects from 2012 to 2016 include working closely with the MPWU and PUB to manage assets and provide training to staff, the installation of four new rainwater harvesting works and two infiltration gallery works in North and South Tarawa, the detection and repair of leaks in the groundwater pipe system from Buota to Betio and the rehabilitation of the Buota Water Reserve.

Sea inundadtion at high tide into a former fresh water lagoon. Photo: Justin McManus, The Age

Looking to the skies in Kiribati

Rainfall is essential to recharge the freshwater lens that lies beneath coral atolls in Kiribati. Without it, the i-Kiribati people would not be able to grow plants and crops vital to their livelihood.

Freshwater can be extremely scarce in the Republic of Kiribati, home to over 100,000 people scattered across 22 islands in the Central Pacific. Each year after a long dry season, significant rainfall is generally expected to arrive during November or December. Yet over the last few months only a tiny amount of rain has fallen. The islands are dry.

This is consistent with forecasts that predict La Niña conditions will result in below normal rainfall during the 2010-11 wet season across the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati.

“We are likely to see drought conditions for most of the Gilbert Group. In the last La Niña in 2007-08 there were drought conditions that went on for 15-16 months during that time,” Douglas Ramsay, Manager for the Pacific Rim at NIWA, the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research explains.

This rainfall is essential not only to fill rainwater tanks but also to recharge the freshwater lens that lies beneath these coral atolls. It is this water that is used for the majority of water supply via wells and infiltration galleries. The lens also allows for the growth of breadfruit, coconut palms, giant taro, pandanus and other plants species to support the livelihood of the i-Kiribati people.

In the densely populated capital of South Tarawa, it is estimated that the current demand for safe chlorinated groundwater piped to households is already 40% above the sustainable yield of the utilised lens. Without enough supply, households resort to using the polluted well. As a result, mortality rates for children due to waterborne diseases are in the order of 11 in every 1000 children, amongst the highest in the Pacific.

Under the KAPII (Kiribati Adaptation Program – Pilot Implementation Phase II), 14 outer islands in the Gilbert Group are receiving new rain gauges. KAPII is a project that aims to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise through adaptation. The islands of Abaiang, Abemama, Aranuka , Kuria, Maiana, Makin, Marakei, North Tarawa, Nikunau, Nonouti, Onotoa, Tabiteuea North, Tabiteuea South, and Tamana will have gauges installed and training provided for the water technician based on each island to record rainfall data in compliance with Kiribati Meteorological Service standards.

Before the installation of the new gauges, a great deal of data was not being collected, and the government lacked information for planning for drought and high intensity rainfall events.

Ueneta Toorua, Research Officer at the Kiribati Meteorological Service explains. “Our islands are small and widely scattered so rainfall varies between them. The general pattern is that the islands north of the equator have higher rainfall than those in the South.”

Besides this, it is also the generally hot and dry weather that has shaped customary practices on the islands.

“The temperature in Kiribati is very consistent throughout the year. This is important for drying copra and the production of dried fish. Our traditional ways are helped by having a consistent climate,” said Mr. Toorua.

As global temperatures increase due to climate change, it is anticipated that average rainfall volumes and the intensity of extreme rainfall events will increase in Kiribati. Yet this rainfall may vary greatly between the islands or fall away from the islands where it is needed most.

“Across the equatorial belt we are likely to see higher rainfall on average but that will be higher intensity, more extreme rainfall. Whether we see more intense droughts is still something that no one really knows. It will depend on how El Niños and La Niñas change with climate change,” Mr. Ramsay said.

Mr. Toorua and his colleagues at the Kiribati Meteorological Service have already seen evidence of this: “Looking at the long term trends there is an increase here in temperature and also in rainfall. On Tarawa we have more data and it has clearly shown that there is a gradual increase in both. However there may be variation in these trends between different islands.”

With the installation of rain gauges across the scattered atolls of the Gilbert Group, the hope is that the data collected will make it possible to answer some of these questions that are so fundamental to the future of Kiribati.