Changing climate patterns could result in less rain to supply reservoirs in the coming decades, while rising sea levels could contaminate supplies of fresh water, officials warned in St Lucia last week.
Possible solutions include better management of existing water supplies, limits on development and increased use of desalination plants, but all face challenges in a region where most governments are still grappling with the effects of recession.
According to Jason Johnson, vice president of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association, many Caribbean countries rely exclusively on underground water for their needs, a vulnerable source that would be hit hard by climate change effects.
“That’s the greatest concern,” he said. “Those weather patterns may change, and there may not necessarily be the means for those water supplies to be replenished at the pace that they have historically been replenished.”
Some parts of the Caribbean have already been experiencing a dry spell that began in August last year with islands including Grenada and Anguilla reporting extremely dry weather. By July this year, similar conditions were being experienced in Trinidad, Antigua, St Vincent and Barbados, according to the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology.
“We’re seeing changes in weather patterns,” said Avril Alexander, Caribbean coordinator for the nonprofit Global Water Partnership. “When you look at the projected impact of climate change, a lot of the impact is going to be felt through water.”
According to a 2012 study by British risk analysis firm Maplecroft, the island considered most at risk is Barbados, which ranks 21st out of 168 countries in terms of water demand exceeding available surface water supplies.
Other countries high on the list are Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which ranked 45 and 48, respectively, while the study did not provide any data on some eastern Caribbean islands that officials believe to be among the driest in the region.
“There are a number of indications that the total amount of rainfall in much of the Caribbean would be decreasing by the end of the century,” said Cedric Van Meerbeeck, a climatologist with the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology.
Van Meerbeeck said water supplies will continue to decrease if individuals as well as agriculture and tourism, the region’s key industries, do not monitor use.
Overuse of wells in some Caribbean countries has caused saltwater seepage and a deterioration of potable water underground, leading to the construction of desalination plants.
But the cost of desalination still remains unaffordable for many governments, said John Thompson, director of the Caribbean Desalination Association board.
The biggest challenge overall is changing the mentality of water utility authorities who see their role as solely providing clean water, Johnson said.
“The new reality is that it’s a national security issue if your water supplies are diminished,” Johnson said. “It becomes a health and safety issue.”
“Inaction is not an option,” said Lystra Fletcher-Paul, Caribbean land and water officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “The water resources will not be available