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  • By Bernadette Carreon

Emerging from drought

(Second of a two-part series)


—The drought in 2016 was a rude awakening for Palau. The acute water shortage that necessitated rationing has made the island nation realized its tendency to take its resources for granted.

But officials find a silver lining in last year’s calamity. After that real-life drill, Palau was prompted into action and resolved to better manage its infrastructure systems.

In April 2016, Japan supplied Palau with 1,000 gallons rubber containers, schools and other public facilities have been equipped with rain catchment tanks. The Palau Public Utilities Corp. (PPUC) has acquired a fleet of water truck to use for delivery of water, if another drought-related water outage happens again.

The government has also purchased well-water pump systems and filling stations. To prevent the dam from drying up again, all of these efforts need to be coordinated.

The latest 2017 Palau State of the Environment report noted that droughts are expected to intensify with climate change. Drought that is not part of a predictable cycle such as El Nino could be considered an indicator of climate change.

Drought causes other problems too like crop loss, water temperature rise, even oceanic currents are affected by a decrease in rainfall. In the long term, it can have a snowball effect where the changing conditions lead to more changes which lead to more changes.

Drought itself is a believed to indicate altered weather patterns and is only part of the problem that Palau would face if these altered weather patterns become the norm rather than the exception.

As for water supply, to cope up with another water shortage, improved water supply monitoring and management should include clear thresholds for implementing water hours and rationing, according to the report.

In 2016, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said Palau was in an “exceptional drought.” By the end of April, Palau started experiencing heavy rainfall, a sign that it may be recovering from drought-related water shortage.

One of the lessons learned during the drought is that there is also a need to staff the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO), an agency under the Office of the Vice President. NEMO, the principal agency for coordinating Palau’s response to drought or preparation for any emergency, has been without a coordinator since the retirement of Priscilla Subris.

The ice president serves as chairman of the National Emergency Committee, which is composed of relevant government agencies and civil society organizations. The NEMO coordinator serves as the secretariat that coordinates resources and responses to mitigate or address emergency situations.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. said there is a “40 to 50” percent chance of another drought hitting the island nation by the end of the year. NEMO is therefore expected to start coordinating at this stage.

Help from donor countries have also come after the drought. Japan has offered to assist Palau conduct a feasibility study to look into another water source in Babeldaob — specifically the Tabecheding River — to connect to the Koror-Airai Public Water Supply System.

The drought has underscored the value of using renewable energy in reducing the cost of power generation, which can translate to reduced water rates as experienced in Kayangel State, where a solar water pump has recently been installed.

Alternative energy has also been embraced by the far-flung states of Peleliu and Angaur. Solar power energy is now powering up the water pump wells in Peleliu. While solar power is also being used in Angaur, the problem in this state is the poor quality of water coming out of the public wells. It has unpleasant taste and odor.

PPUC has taken the initial steps toward improving the water quality in Babeldaob, which for years had failed to meet the standards for safe drinking water.

PPUC is repairing the water system filters for seven states and replacing the existing filter media and strainers. Improvements will lead to the reduction of turbidity and bacteria such as coliform and E. coli. The type of filter media used in the Babeldaob water systems is called sand filters. Sand filtration is a frequently used method to remove suspended solids from water. This process is applied to nearly all the Babeldaob Public Water Supply Systems. Strainers are also used to strain or filter out solid debris in the water system.

The State of the Environment Report stated that water supply demand is expected to increase beyond capacity by 2020. Current supply cannot meet existing demand during drought, because part of it is storage is inadequate.

Palau is upgrading the Koror-Airai Public Sewer System, which serves more than 80 percent of Palau’s population.

The project seeks to remedy the low-to-zero water pressure currently plaguing certain areas in Koror and Airai. The government seeks to improve the Koror water security by installing second treated water transmission lines and removing health hazard asbestos pipes in the network.

The water treatment plant, which produces 4 million gallons a day of treated water for Airai and Koror, was built in the mid-1990s. The main piping system that distributes the water has never been upgraded. Leaks in the system has reached almost half of the treated water coming out of the plant—water that are lost or not being metered for billing.

If Palau learned a lesson, the island nation would be better prepared in the future.

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