March 21, 2017 - Tabonibara, Kiribati –Straddling the equator in the middle of the Central Pacific Ocean, Kiribati is made up of 33 coral atolls spread across 3.5 million km² (1.3 square miles) of ocean. Most of the islands are less than two kilometers wide and have an average height of 1.8 meters (6 feet) above sea level, making the country one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change and sea level rise.
King tides can wash over entire islands, causing flooding for days and contaminating drinking water supplies for weeks and even months. Prolonged droughts, particularly during La Nina, can cause extreme water shortage, affecting agriculture and peoples’ general wellbeing.
With the entire population and the majority of the infrastructure located on the coast, damage and coastal erosion from high tides, storm surges and strong winds is increasingly an issue.
Ruteta, a mother of three living in Tabonibara village, North Tarawa, knows all too well the problems that contaminated well water can bring.
“A few years ago our well water got really smelly. We worried about our children, because they had diarrhea after drinking the water we boiled from the affected well,” said Ruteta.
North Tarawa, while still part of the main island of Kiribati, is only accessible by boat and remains largely subsistence-based, with residents gathering most of their food and water from their surroundings. Until recently, communities used ground water from wells for all their cooking, drinking and farming needs. While usually satisfactory after boiling, ground water can become contaminated by seawater during floods and king tides, making people – especially children – sick. Prolonged periods of drought, usually during La Nina years, often meant heavy rationing of water, impacting general wellbeing and agriculture.
Infant mortality in Kiribati is the highest in the Pacific Islands, at 43 deaths per thousand live births and infantile diarrhea contributes to this high number.
Through the Kiribati Adaptation Program, which is now in its third phase, rainwater harvesting systems have now been installed in Ruteta’s community, as well as in five other communities nearby.
“Now that we have rainwater tanks our children have fallen ill much less so that makes us very happy. There’s a big difference in the quality of rainwater compared to well-water,” said Ruteta