Drinking water rushed to 2 island nations in drought
Thousands of people on Tuvalu and Tokelau getting outside help
msnbc.com news services, Oct. 7, 2011
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa -- The U.S., Australia and New Zealand were sending water aid via aircraft and a Coast Guard cutter to two South Pacific island nations facing severe drought.
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter stationed in Honolulu is helping bring 36,000 gallons of drinking water to Tokelau, made up of three atolls, which had about seven days of fresh drinking water left.
Cutter Walnut was on American Samoa to meet up with a New Zealand Defence Force aircraft bringing large containers and a seven-person team. The containers were being loaded with fresh drinking water, which the cutter would travel 358 miles over 30 hours to deliver the water to Tokelau.
"This is a very real humanitarian need here," said U.S. Ambassador David Huebner, of the joint effort with New Zealand. "We are talking about approximately 1,500 people who could be out of fresh water within a week, so we really needed to act very quickly."
Tokelau has no useable airfield, making an air mission impossible, but the Cutter Walnut was in the region on patrol and able to drop off huge plastic containers of water.
Tokelau residents ran out of fresh water altogether last week and relying on a seven-day supply for bottled water sent from Samoa.
The island nation of Tuvalu has also declared emergencies, relying on bottled water and seeking more desalination machines. Parts of Samoa are starting to ration water as well.
Supplies are precariously low after a severe lack of rain in a region where underground reserves have been fouled by saltwater from rising seas that scientists have linked to climate change.
Tuvalu, the world's fourth-smallest nation sitting just below the Equator, has has a collective land mass of just 10 square miles, with its highest point 15 feet above sea level and is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and rising oceans.
Air force planes from New Zealand and Australia were combining on Friday to move a large desalination plant to Tuvalu.
"The advice is that more capacity is needed to relieve the acute water shortage and replenish stocks," said New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully in a statement.
"The large army desalination equipment ... will help ease the critical shortage and should provide a sufficient buffer if the dry period continues as expected."
Residents in the capital Funafuti have been rationed to two buckets of fresh water a day. The country has a population of fewer than 11,000 on nine low lying atolls.
Rain, which supplies much of the water for the two nations, has been well below average for the past six months because of a severe La Nina weather pattern.
That has increased the strength of eastern trade winds across the Pacific, pushing rainfall to the west and away from the islands.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.