Magazine | Environment | Oceania

Marshall Islands: Facing a Sea of Changes

El Niño brought drought and warmer waters to a Micronesian nation already facing a slew of environmental threats.

Marshall Islands: Facing a Sea of Changes
Credit: Jon Letman

MAJURO, Republic of Marshall Islands — For a country with just 70 square miles of land surrounded by 750,000 square miles of open ocean, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) can be a surprisingly dry place. In this nation of 29 low-lying coral atolls comprised of over 1,200 small islands and islets, capturing rainfall in catchment tanks is essential for storing drinking water and growing food. On Majuro Atoll, the nation’s capital, for example, the largest freshwater storage site is a 170 million gallon catchment reservoir at the airport. During droughts, Majuro also pumps water from an aquifer on the far west of the 25-mile-long island.

Last October, this nation of more than 53,000 people began to experience the effects of a powerful El Niño as the rain stopped falling.

Decreased rainfall between January and April is not unusual in the RMI but the 2015-2016 El Niño brought a drought that started earlier and lasted longer than almost any in recent memory. Minister in Assistance to the President Mattlan Zackhras said, “We’ve never seen a drought this long before.” He described how government recovery efforts from an unseasonal severe tropical storm and tidal inundation in July 2015 were still ongoing when the latest drought set in.

Prolonged droughts not only threaten food crops, but also have sobering public health implications says Dr. Victoria Keener, a research fellow specializing in hydroclimatology and applied climate science at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “A lot of people don’t realize that the reality of drought on Pacific islands means when it gets serious you see severe health impacts very quickly.” She’s referring to gastrointestinal diseases like typhoid, epidemics of conjunctivitis (pink eye), and vector-borne diseases like Zika, Chikungunya virus, and Dengue fever that can spread when mosquito blooms follow the end of a drought.

By the time the first heavy rain bursts returned to Majuro in May, breadfruit trees were parched and withered, their shriveled fruit hanging from thin branches. In early June the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared the 2015-16 El Niño officially over but the northern atolls remain under emergency drought conditions.