Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink: Adapting to life in climate change-hit Kiribati

March 21, 2017

  • Kiribati is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
  • The Kiribati Adaptation Program is working with communities to provide safe drinking water and strengthen coastal infrastructure.
  • The program is piloting a number of adaptation strategies to better prepare Kiribati for the future.

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

" 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. "


Mother of three living in Tabonibara village

Clean and reliable drinking water

Rainwater harvesting systems were piloted in an earlier phase of the Kiribati Adaption Project and, after extensive consultations with local authorities and community members, the project’s team were able to design the systems to be used, decide on the best building and locations (to be retrofitted with gutters and piping to help catch rain and direct it to the tanks) and work with each community to establish operation and maintenance committees, who are responsible for the systems and their maintenance.

“There is around 50 pumps on our island of North Tarawa,” said a local Government Water Technician working on the project. “The water goes straight to the tanks where it will be stored and shared among the people for the wellbeing of the people the community will decide on how to ration the water during times of drought.”

With the rainwater harvesting systems in place, community members now have easy access to clean water, and the storage tanks mean a larger pool is available during times of drought.

“We are grateful because life is much simpler having rainwater,” said Ruteta. “When a drought comes in the future, we will be reassured that we will have drinking water stored in the tanks that we can get directly from those taps and we are happy that we won’t be in trouble.”


Taking a broad approach

In its Policy Statement on Climate Change, the government of Kiribati says: “As Kiribati cannot escape climate change, it must adapt to it.”

With that in mind, the World Bank has worked with the government since 2003 on three phases of the Kiribati Adaptation Program; with work focused first on raising awareness of the impacts and incorporating climate change into government policies, then on piloting mangrove planting and construction of seawalls.

Now in its third phase, these rainwater harvesting systems are just one of the activities being undertaken to help Kiribati better prepare and withstand climate related impacts in the future. Key coastal areas are now being protected through locally-managed adaptation plans, identifying vulnerable areas or infrastructure and mapping out ways to maintain or protect it, with small grants for activities around climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, together with technical support for the government’s Strategic Risk Management Unit, which overseas this work.

The Kiribati Adaptation Project and its activities are supported through the Governments of Australia, Japan and Kiribati, as well as the global Environment Facility and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

To learn more about it, visit the project page.