How Climate Change Threatens A Double Blow To The Caribbean’s Drinking Water

CREDIT: Edwin Huffman / World Bank


CREDIT: Edwin Huffman / World Bank

According to experts, the island nations of the Caribbean could see a double blow to their freshwater supplies thanks to climate change. Shifting rainfall patterns may not replenish the countries’ underground water reservoirs as in the past, and rising sea levels threaten to contaminate those same supplies with salt water.

Scientists and officials gathered at the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia this past week for a conference entitled “Climate Change, Tourism and Agriculture — Strategies and innovations for adaptation.” But they also took the opportunity to expand beyond climate change’s implications for those two industries, taking on its impact for freshwater supplies across then Caribbean.

Many countries in the region rely exclusively on underground water for their drinking supplies, reports the Associated Press. And as climate change alters weather patterns, it can diminish the pace at which those supplies are refilled. “When you look at the projected impact of climate change, a lot of the impact is going to be felt through water,” said Avril Alexander, Caribbean coordinator for the nonprofit Global Water Partnership. And the intense rainfall that’s hit the region recently may not help. Heavy rains and deluges actually decrease the amount of time the water has to seep into the ground before running off. They also drive up purification costs and can force water treatment systems to temporarily close down to protect against contamination.

This problem isn’t limited to the Caribbean. Climate change is threatening to upend already-strained water supplies of many U.S. states, including Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The Colorado River is frighteningly low, as are many U.S. reservoirs, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River. The glaciers that supply freshwater for many South American cities and communities are in historic retreat. And tapped-out water supplies even threaten the ability of many major industries — especially the energy industry — to keep functioning at capacity.

An unusual dry spell already hit portions of the Caribbean last year. According to the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology, several islands reported extremely dry weather in August 2012, including Grenada and Anguilla, and those conditions spread to Trinidad, Antigua, St. Vincent and Barbados by July of this year. “There are a number of indications that the total amount of rainfall in much of the Caribbean would be decreasing by the end of the century,” Cedric Van Meerbeeck, a climatologist with the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology, told the Associated Press.

The threat of salt water contamination isn’t as pressing as depleted water levels, but it’s a particular problem for island nations and communities. As sea levels rise, there are more opportunities for sea water to seep into groundwater systems along coastal areas and mix in with the fresh water. Of course, on an island, everything is near the coast, leaving the groundwater in the Caribbean especially vulnerable. Studies suggest sea level rise could hit six or seven feet by 2100 under the worst case scenarios in which no action is taken on climate change.

Access to drinking water and sanitation improved markedly for Caribbean populations between 1990 and 2000, but then stalled out or even fell behind since. Many challenges still loom. A 2012 study by the British risk analysis firm Maplecroft ranked the Caribbean nation of Barbados 21st out of 168 countries at risk for water demand exceeding available surface water supplies. Other Caribbean islands high on the list included Cuba at 45 and the Dominican Republican at 48.

Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados have already ordered water rationing this year. “Climate is maybe not the biggest factor, but it’s a drop in an already full bucket of water,” Meerbeeck said. “It will have quite dramatic consequences if we keep using water the way we do right now.”