Climate change threatens the supply of drinking water in the caribbean

Although the picturesque tropical islands are surrounded by plenty of water, the islands are running out of water," Nunez says. Rising temperatures and low rainfall could make the situation worse.

Caribbean islands like Barbados are surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, but many of them face water shortages

Noreen Nunez makes her home in Tunapuna-Piarco, a region in northern Trinidad. The neighborhood where she lives stretches up a mountain. This is where the middle class lives.

Most of the houses were built in the 1970s and 1980s. They are painted pastel colors and are located along a long, winding road with many trees. Among the fruit trees in the large backyards are water tanks that are fixed to concrete slabs. And it is precisely these water tanks that show: even this affluent area is now affected by the water shortage in the Caribbean.

Residents fill their tanks with water from their pipes, so they have enough when the water department cuts off the supply again. And this happens all the time. In addition, further up the mountain, the pressure in the pipes is far too low, so that often not enough water reaches the higher-lying houses.

Nunez says water supply fails regularly. This often happens in the evening and then for several hours at a time.

"Most of the time we buy food outside or have it delivered right away" tells Nunez. "We buy water bottles and use disposable dishes so we don’t have to wash dishes"

Caribbean islands like Barbados may be surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, but many of them struggle with water scarcity

Patchy infrastructure and leaking pipes

The Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis are even considered water scarce. This is the UN’s term for countries where renewing water resources are below 1.000 cubic meters per person per year fall.

In Barbados, the situation is particularly severe, with just 350 cubic meters of water per person. Keithroy Halliday, manager of the country’s water authority, reports that.

Although most people outside the rural mountain regions in the Caribbean are connected to the public water supply, the pipes are mostly old and in need of repair. Much drinking water will be lost as a result.

Alan Poon King, head of Trinidad and Tobago’s Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA), says you lose up to 60 million gallons of water every day to dilapidated plumbing systems. Add to that the same amount of water wasted on private property due to problems like leaky faucets.

Climate change is causing increasing drought, which is exacerbating water problems on the islands

The situation is very similar in Jamaica. According to Peter Clarke, executive director of the country’s water agency, the country is suffering from "a significant loss of treated drinking water that should be delivered to the end users. But because of leaky pipes and leaks, the water doesn’t get there."

Climate change is making things worse

"There are many problems facing the water industry in the Caribbean. Climate change is exacerbating this situation", Says Adrian Cashman of the international network Global Water Partnership. The organization advises regions, government agencies and private companies on sustainable water management.

Officials say the droughts of recent years have meant that there has not been enough rain to replenish aquifers sufficiently and quickly enough.

"Last summer, we experienced an enormous drought in Jamaica.", reports Clarke. "For water utilities, it’s been a real challenge."

In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s hard to pinpoint climate change impacts in numbers, says Poon King. But rising temperatures are a constant challenge. "We have less precipitation here than in the past, between ten and 20 percent in the dry season."

Last year, water had to be rationed in Puerto Rico because of the drought

Barbados’ water supply is also already being significantly impacted by climate change, Halliday reports. All of the country’s renewable water resources come from rainfall, he further explains. In 2019, Barbados recorded its lowest rainfall totals since 1947.

Climate investment and more awareness

In the Caribbean, the standard of living is relatively high. The UN declares most countries there to be "upper middle-income" nations. This excludes them from many international development funds. At the same time, high levels of government debt, combined with the tangible effects of climate change, make it difficult to invest in infrastructure.

Nevertheless, water management in Grenada has just received support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF). This is a fund of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that was established, among other things, to provide money to developing countries for adaptation to climate change.

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Project manager Hans-Werner Theisen says about half of the $42.9 million (35.4 million euros) provided by the GCF for the project will be invested in improving infrastructure such as water tanks, storage facilities and pipelines. It also says there will be financial incentives to reduce water waste in agriculture and tourism. Both industries are among the largest consumers of water in the country.

Making the population more aware of the need to use water more carefully is also part of the project in Grenada. "I think it’s very important that really everyone uses water consciously and sparingly in everyday life", explains Theisen.

Barbados has a different approach. The state has enacted laws prohibiting the use of drinking water for washing cars, gardening, swimming pools or the like. As in Jamaica, this encourages people to use domestic water for these things.

Water, water everywhere

Barbados and Jamaica urge residents to be very economical with their water

Despite near-daily outages, the 2017 UN Water Report writes that most people in the Caribbean have access to a safe – if irregular – water supply.

It infuriates Nunez in Trinidad because she lives on an island with a beautiful 360-degree view of the turquoise ocean. But often nothing comes out of the tap.

"Water and air are things that humans need to live", she says. "I can’t understand how, on an island surrounded by water, you can’t find some way to use the water – to desalinate it, for example."

According to 2019 data, the region meets about 12 percent of its water supply with treated water from desalination plants. Poon King explains the figure is currently around 20 percent for Trinidad and Tobago. A further increase would be problematic because of the high energy costs involved in desalination.

For Nunez, the scarcity of water does not match her country’s level of development. Trinidad and Tobago has long made good money from its oil. At the same time, however, the country is struggling to adequately meet the population’s basic need for water.

"There are glass buildings and universities and huge international airports and all kinds of things, but there’s no water.", she says. "We have state-of-the-art architecture and apartments and houses. But it looks like indoor sanitation and kitchens are just decoration."

The world’s scarcest raw materials

Water, the source of all life

In parts of the world, access to fresh drinking water is taken for granted; in other countries, water is a luxury good. Freshwater accounts for only 2.5 percent of the Earth’s total water supply, and half of that is ice. Of the rest, agriculture consumes 70 percent. By 2050, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages.

The world’s scarcest resources

Land, the new gold

The race for usable land is accelerating worldwide. The world’s population is growing, but not the arable land – which, on the contrary, is becoming increasingly difficult to use. Climate change is not making things any easier. Countries with large populations and relatively scarce land resources, such as Saudi Arabia and China, are already securing arable land in Africa. Land is the new gold.

The world’s scarcest resources

Fossil fuels – scarce and non-renewable

Fossil fuels are definitely among the scarce raw materials – if only because they are not renewable. So at some point it will cease to exist – or it will become uneconomical to exploit. For countries like Iraq or Libya, which rely on their large oil and natural gas reserves, this will become a tremendous challenge.

The world’s scarcest resources

Coal – time to say goodbye

The same goes for another fossil fuel: coal. While producing countries are reluctant to say goodbye to this energy source, supplies are inevitably running out. In Germany, it is expected that the lignite mining areas will be completely exhausted in the 2040s, in Poland as early as 2030. Hard coal may last a little longer, but not much longer, experts say.

The world’s scarcest raw materials

Sand – everywhere and nowhere

When we think of deserts, sand seems to be an inexhaustible source of raw materials, but nature takes its time producing them. Sand is a renewable resource, but it is being consumed so quickly in the construction industry, for example, that nature can’t keep up with production. In places like East Africa, where the population is expected to double by 2050, sand is becoming a scarce commodity.

The world’s scarcest commodities

Species are becoming scarce

Careless treatment of all living creatures on this planet is bringing some species to the brink of extinction. Not only edible fish and farmed animals are widely considered raw materials. Pangolins (pictured), rhinos, porpoises and even seahorses can also be counted among the raw materials threatened with extinction – partly because they are sought-after commodities.

The scarcest resources in the world

The scarcest resource of all? The time

Time is still available to us, even though it is becoming increasingly scarce and valuable. Climate change is said to still be reversible if appropriate action is taken in the next twelve years. And time is a resource that we can exploit to the max. Time to lose, we have in any case not.

Author: Irene Banos Ruiz (kkl)

This article has been amended to correct an error regarding the Climate Resilient Water Sector in Grenada project and the financial support of the Green Climate Fund. An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated the amount as 45 million euros.

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