The most repeated public health advice since the outbreak of the New Coronavirus has been “wash your hands thoroughly with soap”. Most governments who have decided to close down schools have done so because, in addition to the social distancing strategy to avoid community spread through children and teachers, colleges in poor districts had little to no access to drinking water, making the advice to wash one’s hands a moot one. Wherever we look, water is as necessary as the air we breathe and the food we eat. It is the basis of human society. Most human settlements have developed in locations where water was available and disappeared with the liquid element that sustained their lives and livelihoods.
Today’s water management situation shows all symptoms of stress and depletion of a scarce and precious natural resource around which, the foresight analysts have bet, future wars will be fought. The Caribbean Islands are no exception to a planetary tension. Low pressure, outages, dry taps. Empty reservoirs, dry streams, withered crops. This situation is unfortunately all too familiar in the region. Barbados, Saint Lucia and St Kitts and Nevis are among several countries in the region that have been under drought-triggered restrictions or a perpetual lack of water access across segments of the country for the last few years.
Now experiencing our fourth drought spell since 2009, it may be more accurate to say drought is the normal condition with a few scattered hurricanes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their 2018 Special Report asserted that limiting global warming to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial era “is expected to substantially reduce the probability of extreme drought, precipitation deficits, and… water stress”. The prolonged lack of adequate clean water supplies has dire implications for health, hygiene, sanitation and food security.
The IPCC also states that small islands and economically disadvantaged populations are particularly at risk for multiple and compounding climate risks which will exacerbate vulnerabilities in the energy, food and water sectors. In October 2019, the Ministers with responsibility for water in the Caribbean, unanimously endorsed the Regional Strategic Action Plan for the Governance and Building Climate Resilience in the Water Sector (RSAP).* Unequivocally, climate resilience is articulated as the cornerstone for securing the sector’s future, being embedded in every pillar – governance, resource management, decision support systems, services and capacity building.
Antigua and Barbuda, adept in dealing with water scarcity, has desalination as a key source of potable water. As a capital and energy intensive technology, the feasibility of desalination has significant financial considerations, which is among the factors influencing Barbados’ decision regarding a second plant. With the majority of agriculture in the region being rain-fed, irrigation, water storage and controlled environments must be part of the sector’s climate resilience strategy to secure water supply and guard against crop failure. UNDP continues to partner with several farming communities in Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Lucia to expand the availability of irrigation systems, water storage facilities, greenhouses, hydroponics and drought-resistant varieties of crops and livestock to strengthen this critical sector. Similarly, many communities are either entirely reliant on rainwater storage, such as Mayreau in the Grenadines or suffer perpetual limited supply such as Clarendon in Jamaica. In such cases, UNDP has supported community storage systems to give more reliable access to this precious resource.
Physical development planning must carefully consider its impact on, for instance, biodiversity, air quality, waste management systems and water resources, especially tourism ventures which are notoriously water intensive, using 2,000-7,500 litres per tourist per day. We must also be ready to capture those inevitable deluges from tropical systems to ensure availability in the aftermath. Atmospheric water extractors (or similar technology) literally condense water vapour from the air to produce drinking water. One such was on demonstration at the 2019 Renewable Energy Expo in Barbados and is available commercially.
We must also intensify and accelerate our actions to combat the climate crisis and keep temperatures below 1.5°C. Already having reached 1°C, the window is narrowly closing before the world reaches an irreversible tipping point. What we have learned from the COVID-19 crisis is that, among other things, we can’t survive without water. So please use it frequently with soap to kill the virus, but don’t wash your hands of the problem!
Danielle Evanson, Head of the Sustainable Solutions and Energy Cluster
Magdy Martinez Soliman, Resident Representative. UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean