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Tuvalu: Impending Drought Emergency Plan of Action (EPoA) DREF Operation n° MDRTV002

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Description of the disaster

Tuvalu is highly reliant on rainfall as the main source of fresh water. There are no rivers on the islands and groundwater is extremely limited. Rainwater is harvested and stored in household tanks, island community and church tanks, cisterns and a large government cistern. Funafuti’s water harvesting system is inherently sensitive to dry spells because it is completely dependent on rainfall. This reflects the timing, frequency, and intensity of rainfall. Groundwater resources where available are brackish and exposed to saltwater intrusion from flooding and rising sea level, and also exposed to contamination from human and animal waste.

Rainfall for the last three months in Tuvalu has been at the lowest 25 per cent in historical record, causing the regional Red Cross Red Crescent (RCRC) Early Action Rainfall (EAR) Watch to place Tuvalu at ‘dry warning’ level. Despite the national EAR Watch’s climate outlook forecasting normal rainfall for the coming months, the likelihood of Tuvalu proceeding to serious or severely dry conditions remains high. Preparedness and early actions are advisable given past and future seasonal data. Tuvalu relies almost solely on rainwater for consumption, indicating that continued monitoring and data collection would be of high value, as the situation can deteriorate rapidly.

According to the Tuvalu Met Services EARWatch: ‘During the month of June, Nanumea, Funafuti and Niulakita was at drought [level], while Nui was at drought warning. During the past two months of May and June, Funafuti was at drought [level], Nanumea and Nui were at drought warning, Niulakita was at drought watch. During the past three months of April, May and June, Nanumea was at drought [level], Nui and Niulakita was at drought warning and Funafuti was at drought watch. For the last six months (since January 2021), drought was observed at Nanumea, Nui and Funafuti was at drought warning’.

Government reserves data is only available till May, flagging tanks were at only 38 per cent of their full capacity. Despite this, the government has yet to declare a state of emergency as the nature of drought in Tuvalu is complex and changing. As an active member of the drought committee in Tuvalu, the TRCS monitors the situation closely and began planning EWEA in early July, following the EARwatch information. There was an episode of rainfall in mid-end July, which ended water distribution activities by the government in Funafuti. However, as Tuvalu is almost solely dependent on rainfall, long-term impacts can still take effect despite short-term water relief, especially with current forecasts and, if example, household water tank information is not known.

This potential cycle can continue for months and understanding the water security situation is the first part of the early action planned. More up to date information is therefore required on government reserves along with rainfall data, according to Tuvalu Drought Committee scenario planning.

The Government of Tuvalu manages further drought advisories, which provides information to TRCS on needed preparedness, early action or response activities and data collection. Ongoing review of published EARWatches such as those by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), NIWA and Tuvalu EARwatch feeds into the process. As of 20 August, for example, the BoM Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific’s (COSPPac) Regional Early Action Rainfall Watch also confirmed Tuvalu at seriously dry.

Tuvalu National Drought Committee (DC) was activated on 5 July, who agreed to meet weekly to provide updates on both thresholds (rainfall received and government water reserves). The Ministry of Public Works established seven water distribution points which have been operational since 12 July on Funafuti, where all households are able to collect six buckets of water (approximately 60 liters per household per day). These have now been temporarily ceased. Of note is the variation in average household across the island groups. As a guide on Funafuti, the average household has eight members (according to the 2017 census) and therefore the daily allocation is below the recommended SPHERE standards for water supply, where each person requires a minimum of at least 15 liters per day. Technically, households are entitled to about 120 liters daily, which is the equivalent of 12 buckets per day. As such, understanding current water availability at the household level across the seven affected islands (through water sounding support8 by TRCS to government) will be critical to ensure needs are being met during the short, medium and long term. Two desalination units at the Public Works Department are not operational and require spare parts to be operational again. Another desalination unit has arrived in Funafuti, but it has not been assembled yet. According to the agreement, the suppliers must assemble the desalination unit, however due to border closures, they are unable to leave New Caledonia. The Department of Foreign Affairs is working on getting the suppliers to come to Funafuti. Given the nature and likelihood of water scarcity in Tuvalu, to compliment drought awareness messaging on TV, the committee requested to start radio and social media awareness campaigns, which will be led by TRCS under this DREF.