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The big dry: Marshallese scramble for water sources

From late March to mid-April, all Majuro drinking water companies were inundated with business due to the worsening El Niño-caused drought that resulted in many people running out of water at home. Pacific Basin Payless Supermarket's water-filling location, pictured here, was packed with people during this period.   Photo by Wilmer Joel

 By Giff Johnson


Majuro — For over 50 days from the end of February to the second week of April, El Niño took its toll on Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. During that period, only trace rainfall was recorded. A large number of the over 20,000 residents saw their water catchment tanks run dry and, with city water rationed to just a few hours one day a week, it was a scramble for most people to find sources of water.

Atolls in the country further north than Majuro had experienced drought conditions since the end of 2023 and many were provided small reverse osmosis water-making units to provide a few hundred gallons of fresh water daily during the El Niño-triggered drought.

January to April is the dry season in the Marshall Islands. But the El Niño weather condition showed dramatically in January with Majuro getting barely half its usual 8.24-inch average. February saw 5.11 inches — 2.5 inches below the average. 

But from the end of February through March, there was no rain in Majuro — this in islands that depend on rain for about 95 percent of their fresh water. It wasn’t until the second week of April that Majuro received a long-hoped for deluge of nearly three inches of rain over two days in mid-April — and smaller amounts of rain keep falling. Still, El Niño’s impact is significant. With less than 40 percent of the average rainfall during the first three months of 2024, it will be felt in root crop production the rest of the year.


Reservoir levels declined from about 80 percent full to half by mid-April. This left 18 million gallons and, with distribution carefully rationed, the reservoir level is expected to be adequate to get Majuro by June when the climate pendulum will be swinging in the opposite direction toward the “La Niña” weather condition — which increases rainfall in this region of the western Pacific.

The National Weather Service in Guam issues a weekly climate update. During February and March, the weekly report noted that drought conditions were worsening across much of Micronesia, with drier weather now widespread to include Palau. Severe drought persists across the islands of Yap State, Guam, the CNMI and the northern Marshall Islands. 

“Drought conditions continue to worsen across much of the region with drier weather now spreading to include Palau,” said Marcus Landon Aydlett, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Guam.

“Below-normal rainfall is expected across much of the region, particularly islands and atolls along and north of 5N. Current conditions across drought-stricken locations will only worsen in the coming weeks. This includes water supplies and available well water on the outer islands.”


The drought affected Majuro in different ways. During March and early April, most restaurants ran out of water used in their kitchens when their guttered catchment tanks ran dry. They had to resort to buying water to use for washing dishes and food.

When 14 of 19 restaurants failed the regular Environmental Protection Authority water quality test in mid-March, the EPA said its normal procedure of allowing businesses a couple of days to clean their tanks before retesting their water to ensure it met safety standards could not happen for the simple reason that many of the restaurants had no water.

Although many Majuro residents were struggling with the water shortage during March and early April, the government had no reverse osmosis water-making units for Majuro. All of the reverse osmosis units were dispatched to the outer islands, which also have serious water shortages, leaving none for Majuro, which has half the population of this nation. 

In mid-April, the National Weather Service in Guam warned: “Extreme Drought persists across the islands of Yap State and the northern Marshall Islands. Below normal rainfall is expected for at least the next few weeks, likely a couple more months across these areas."

The U.S. Weather Service update added: “Drought conditions worsen for Yap Proper in Yap State, and for Wotje and nearby islands in the Marshall Islands, Severe Drought worsens to Extreme Drought.”

Whether the mid-April rains continue is unknown, but in the meantime, Majuro and nearby atolls were, at least briefly, basking in wetness.


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