MIKE TAIBBI: Two men mix sand and shovelfuls of cement, spending hours on end building their seawall— no, re-building it, and higher each time.
Banga Roriki is working with his nephew, Robin, who has been living in this house, on Majuro, one of the Marshall Islands, for 22 years.
BANGA RORIKI: The high tide comes very high.
MIKE TAIBBI: He says the wall is meant to stop massive high tides, known here as king tides, like the one that surged through his home last year.
On another of the Marshall Islands, Ebeye, those same tides eat away the shoreline everywhere you look. Tombstones shoved free and even swept out to sea. What used to be a park surrounding Ebeye’s power plant, gone.
74-year-old Belma Marok has already seen king tides destroy several homes here.
BELMA MAROK: The corner of the house was right over there, right outside that piece of concrete there.
MIKE TAIBBI: These big slabs were part of the foundation of the house?
BELMA MAROK: Yeah.
MIKE TAIBBI: The Marshall Islands, a nation of slender atolls and five more substantial islands, sit in the South Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, no more than six or seven feet above sea level.
Climate scientists warn — if the current pace of global warming and sea level rise continues, then low-lying islands like the Marshalls could become incapable of sustaining their population within a generation or two.
CHIP FLETCHER: Sea level is rising in certain parts of the pacific faster than anywhere else in the world.
MIKE TAIBBI: Chip Fletcher studies climate science at the University of Hawaii. He says that well before the Marshall Islands might disappear — they could face a more immediate impact from climate change: fresh water shortages.
MIKE TAIBBI: What’s the biggest threat now to the Marshall Islands?
CHIP FLETCHER: Depends on your time scale. I think the longer time scale sea
level rise is probably the biggest threat. Simply because it has the potential to rise
above the average elevation of the Marshall Islands. Shorter timescale though, it’s the
fundamental need for fresh water.
MIKE TAIBBI: On Ebeye, fresh water is Belma Marok’s biggest worry in his home the spigots hooked up to the town water system are dry.
His son lugs buckets of water so their family can shower and flush their toilets. the family relies on rainwater catchment tanks for water — but those remain practically empty because of a relentless drought.
Getting fresh water has always been a preoccupation for the Marshall Islands. Most communities rely on rainwater collection — rooftop gutters connected to water tanks outside of virtually every home — and a few underground freshwater aquifers they can access through wells.
The fresh water is essential for cleaning, personal hygiene, doing laundry and of course, drinking.
But as life in the islands became more westernized, and the population grew to more than 50-thousand people, those limited freshwater sources became more stressed than ever.
And now, because of climate change the traditional water sources are at increased risk. the droughts are getting so long that collecting enough rainwater is becoming harder and harder.
The freshwater wells and underground aquifers are at risk of being fouled by salt water from frequent flooding some wells already spoiled because of high tides driven by rising sea level.
Those so-called “king” tides now sweep over the Marshalls more intensely and more frequently.
It’s an irony not lost on some climate change experts that while the Marshall Islands are among the sovereign nations that contribute the least to global warming, they’re also among the nations that face threats that are the most profound and immediate.
Hilda Heine, the President of the Republic of Marshall Islands is keenly aware of the paradox of living here it’s the old cliche water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: We’ve been fighting this climate change for the last, what, maybe five to 10 years. And our islands are still livable. So we continue to have hopes. And so I think we’re able to make sure that people are safe during droughts. We’re able to provide water, food and so on. So that’s what we need to do. It’s the new norm, but that doesn’t mean giving up.
MIKE TAIBBI: President Heine says the government has made fresh water access a priority and points to improvements in the centralized water systems on the two most crowded islands — Majuro and Ebeye. But those systems supply only a fraction of the population and for limited hours each week.
On Majuro, home to 27,000 residents, severe weather events put enormous pressure on the main water source — seven reservoirs that store rainwater collected from the airport’s runway.
Halston deBrum is operations manager for Majuro’s government-run water company. he says the drought last year nearly depleted their supply.
HALSTON DEBRUM: This reservoir was half. That one, empty. Reservoir number one and two were pretty empty as well. The only water we did have was pretty much in the covered reservoir, the treated water.
MIKE TAIBBI: deBrum says a more severe weather event could leave them scrambling.
So if the big one hits next month, you guys aren’t ready for it?
HALSTON DEBRUM: No, if the big one hits next month, we won’t be ready for it. And then we’ll have to find other ways to provide water.
MIKE TAIBBI: But deBrum says he’s confident coming improvements will one day provide all residents 24/7 water access, even during droughts.
HALSTON DEBRUM: I think if we improve what we have here what we have. the infrastructure work that we have now. Improve the pipeline. Improve our catchment area on the runway. And then build more reservoirs. Bigger reservoirs so that we can store more.
MIKE TAIBBI: On Ebeye, the main freshwater source is a 14-year-old desalination that’s undergoing a nearly 5 million dollar upgrade. but right now it’s less than a panacea for the more than 10-thousand people living in this densely populated setting.
For one thing, the water is piped into households only 45-minutes a day, two days a week and it isn’t safe to drink without boiling it.
For most of their water needs, residents come to this public tap. But even though this water is tested on a regular basis, many residents are skeptical.
MIKE TAIBBI: Do you use it to drink, or just cook with it? What do you do with it?
JIM SHIMA: I do both cook and eat with it, and also bath and shower.
MIKE TAIBBI: But do you drink it straight?
JIM SHIMA: Eh, not really. I don’t drink the water here, I drink the water from Kwaj.
MIKE TAIBBI: “Kwaj” is the US military base on neighboring Kwajalein Island. Ferries throughout the day from Kwaj bring jugs of good, free and safe water from the base’s own state of the art desalination plant.
These five gallon jugs from the ferry weigh more than 40 pounds apiece and they are a load to carry. Health risks from contaminated water are a constant worry in the Marshall Islands. Waterborne illnesses are one of the top three conditions treated at Ebeye’s hospital. When we journeyed to one of the more remote Marshall Islands — Arno, home to just 15-hundred people — we saw a health worker educating children and adults about the risks of contaminated water and how to clean and test water to make sure it’s safe.
Still, after the lecture we met Tarjadik Arwan, who was drawing fresh water from one of the few wells still producing. she says children in the village have contracted pink eye, diarrhea, and typhoid fever from the wells.
A few miles away, a man named Konio Joe relies on this tank to provide water for his family’s home which he built it after a king tide last year swept away his old house a few yards closer to the shore. Climate scientist Chip Fletcher says there are ways to at least delay the impact of sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
CHIP FLETCHER: What’s the rule of thumb? If you wage war with water, you will lose. Yield and elevate. Yield to the water, and elevate.
By that Fletcher means accepting the consequences of seawater rise and moving homes inland and to higher ground. That’s why Fletcher and his team are creating 3-dimensional models of the Marshalls, like this one of Hawaii’s Oahu island to show where flooding is most likely to occur as sea level rises, and what could be done to defend against it, like building more robust seawalls around the perimeter of the islands.
Fletcher says that’s an approach that should be considered by the Marshall Islands and by other low-lying Pacific ocean countries, like Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, and the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, all of which are seeing an exodus driven partly by climate change.
CHIP FLETCHER: There are communities that are sort of poised on the edge of the cliff, I believe. All it takes is one event, a king tide event, and that might be the killer event to push you over the edge.”
MIKE TAIBBI: How close are you, do you think, to the kind of destructive weather event which will signal a profound change in the way that you should or the world should look at climate change?
PRESIDENT HEINE: Well, we’re practical, and I think we’re looking at the mitigation efforts, adaptation, how we can make the country resilient, people resilient to the effects of climate change. And we continue to do that. Because the option is not an option for us. We cannot think about evacuating our country, our island, because people are connected to their land. If we’re not on these islands, then we’re another people, another country.
The president does fret about the seawall she showed us that stands between her own home and the water that rises higher each year, a barrier that she says, erodes with every king tide.
In the meantime, the president’s across-the-street neighbor on majuro, Banga Roriki, keeps building and re-building his seawall hoping his home can survive.