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  • By Bernadette Carreon

Running Dry: Almost a year after the drought, Palau is still trying to overcome water challenges

Koror (Pacific Note) — Almost a year later, a weather report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) placed Palau in Extreme Drought Level 3 of 4, which was the lowest recorded rainfall since 1951.

To make the matter even worse, the Palau Public Utilities Corp. reported that the only two water sources for Koror and Airai, the two most populous cities in Palau, are providing water supply to the residents.

According to the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO), more than 3,700 households and business establishments in Koror and Airai are connected to the water system, accounting for 75 percent of total connections, with the water usage about 169 gallons per person per day.

The drought was exacerbated by Palau’s poor management of its water system but for the water utilities company tasked to maintain the system sees it from a different perspective. They say improvements need capital, which the company lacks.

Eighteen small water systems located throughout Babeldaob is servicing a total of 965 households and businesses, according to the Palau Statistics Office. These states use surface or stream water flow for water supply. Storage volumes in the tanks and at the low head dams for stream intakes are small and not sufficient to substantially supplement stream shortfalls during dry periods. Four states (Ngiwal – Babeldoab), Peleliu and Angaur (limestone atolls), and Kayangel (coral atoll) each have water systems that have groundwater supply sources. These four states are quite vulnerable, as they are dependent on the rains to recharge their groundwater sources and water lenses.

The Southwest Island States of Sonsorol and Hatohobei, the outlaying states, meanwhile, rely on individual home and community water catchments and wells.

During the two-month drought, several places with low levels at water sources were also affected by turbidity. Although there were no serious reports of major health risks during the drought period, there were fears in the community that the lack of water an the poor water quality could a major health risk to those relying on the public water systems for potable water.

Women and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of the drought at that time.

Resident Rolynda Jonathan said she constantly worried about her two children. “There are no words to describe the level of stress, worry and burden of hauling water from one place to another,” she said. “Every morning we struggle to shower, clean up and prepare for the day with the limited amount of water we have.”

Another mother, Star Ngirngotel, described the drought as “hell on earth” because her and three of her children had a hard time using the restroom, flushing the toilet or taking a shower everyday was difficult.

Eighty percent of the areas in Palau experienced a decrease in water supply. Water bottling companies temporarily stopped the production of bottled water due to the water shortage.

“Cooking was very hard. Simple things like washing dishes, cleaning and just keeping things sanitary was a challenge,” Ngirngotel said. “Every morning we had three hours to fill up our water containers but even then, it was hard because the water was running very slow. Water had to be boiled before it could be used for cooking and drinking.”

The lack of water resource management exacerbated the drought with PPUC saying that the water levels have been declining since January 2016. PPUC placed Koror and Airai on an Emergency Water Rationing Schedule on March 12, 2016. At that time, the water rationing permitted five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening for all areas. One week later, the water rationing was reduced to four hours in the morning and evening. In the succeeding weeks, the water rationing hours were further reduced to three, then two.

On April 4, 2016, the Palau National Congress gave a nod to President Remengesau’s request to extend the

state of emergency I the wake of the worsening dry spell.

Due to the continuous decline in water, PPUC also reported that other parts of Babeldaob, including the larger states of Ngaraard, Ngarchelong, Aimeliik, as well as the outer islands of Kayangel, Peleliu, Angaur and the Southwest Islands, were experiencing diminished water resources and have placed their communities on water rationing schedules.

Tourism also suffered, the average 13,000 visitors per month went down, affecting Palau’s economy, which is mostly driven by tourism.

The first 10 day period was not easy, but Palau’s conditions have not improved and appears to be deteriorating to the point that water from the main water source at the Ngerikiil River could no longer supply all hamlets in Koror and Airai, and water distribution by truck became necessary for certain areas. Drinking water are running out as well but because of available flights from China, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines, bottled water might have been exhausted but there are always a possibility of getting more stocks but the demands on local retailers are high.

Critics blamed the government for the water shortage. While drought may be outside of human control, they said the situation would have been assuaged if Palau had better infrastructure and efficient water resource management. Palau has an ageing water system that at least 45 percent of the water supply is lost to leaks. To supply what’s left of water in Palau , the government through the NEC rented or borrowed , water containers, tanks and bladders

Because the pumps at the wells in Koror are not strong enough to feed water into the main line, platforms were constructed at the well sites to support water bladders which will be filled and then provide water to individuals arriving with small containers. This effort includes the need to construct platforms to establish water stations throughout the communities.

A list of 182 names of homebound, elderly and otherwise vulnerable individuals in Koror and Airai received water supply from the American Red Cross, whose volunteers home-delivered its entire stock on hand of 174 one-gallon bottles of drinking water.

To be continued

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