By Ariana Marshall
EDM Digest Guest Writer
The irony of intense hurricanes such as Matthew is that heavy rainfalls and storm surges pose a threat to water quality, water availability and human health. In Haiti, for example, a cholera outbreak from bacteria-infected water is one of the main concerns after a hurricane’s devastation. If intense hurricanes grow in frequency with climate change, then water infrastructure should be designed to withstand the stress of these storms and capture storm water for beneficial uses.
In Haiti, Water Shortages and Cholera Go Hand-in-Hand
Storm water wreaks havoc on existing water supplies and places additional stress on countries that are already water-stressed. International relief efforts are flooding Haiti because of the 1.4 million people in urgent need. Dozens of new cholera cases have been reported since the hurricane, adding to the impact of 27,000 cholera cases already recorded for the year.
Flooding and storm surges move harmful pollutants into the water supply. Sources of these pollutants include incomplete domestic construction, inadequate sanitation and commercially discarded chemicals into the water supply. The movement of storm water magnifies existing solid and liquid waste issues.
Storms are an opportunity to propel water management solutions. After all, waste moves because of water and the most visible impact of any storm is usually the flood damage it causes. Flooding moves us to action one way or the other; it is an unavoidable amplifier of societal issues.
In Barbados, Water Scarcity Will Increase with Climate Change
The water-stressed island of Barbados has experienced drought-like conditions at least for the past two years. Barbados is designated as a water-scarce country due to its lack of surface water sources and its dense population.
Specifically, a water-scarce country has fewer than 220,000 gallons per capita per year. According to the Barbados Water Authority, Barbados has only 85,800 gallons per capita per year.
This lack of drinkable water will increase as rainfall patterns shift, due to climate change. Rising sea levels will also lead to salinization of the island’s water aquifers.
With the addition of intense storms such as Matthew, the threat to the water supply comes from both the direct impact of flooding and the management of water resources. As part of the Barbados’ government shutdown in preparation for Matthew, the government advised the public about water service changes through informal methods of communication (Whatsapp groups).
During the storm, the local water authority told the public that water in certain parishes would be shut off. The reasons for this shutdown may have been the potential contamination of the desalination plant and the possible interruption of electricity, which could compromise pumping operations.
Residents in certain parishes were advised to collect and store water, but there was no widespread official public statement on which areas would be affected. It is possible that the informal communication led citizens to collect water to an excessive degree. In a water-scarce country like Barbados, excess water collection creates further and unnecessary stress on existing water supplies.
Was the Barbadian Government Slow to Respond to the Crisis?
Prior to Matthew coming ashore as a tropical storm, three parishes in Barbados were without water for several months. Although the country has one reverse osmosis desalination plant and one temporary desalination system, all households receive water. This water is either aquifer-purified or a combination of desalinated and ground water.
The island’s aquifer purification system is comprised of 2 spring sources, 22 well sources, 8 boreholes and 27 reservoirs, according to the Barbados Water Authority. On September 21, a television program created by the Barbados Water Authority, “Water Wednesdays,” attributed a reduction in the water supply to a 2015 -2016 dry spell and increased salinity at certain pumping stations. In February, the local water authority also took action to encourage water conservation by instituting a ban on domestic water use for washing cars or landscaping purposes.
The implementation, communication and public engagement on governmental water solutions resulted in critiques that the government was still slow to respond and to engage the public. Issues raised at town hall meetings and call-in shows included:
- Limited public engagement about when and how water shortages would be addressed in parishes lacking water;
- The distribution of water tanks without information on when the local water authority would fill the tanks
- Lack of access to information or technical advice about how householders could capture and reuse rainwater safely without creating mosquito breeding grounds
The issue permeated newspaper headlines, with critiques of the slow response attributed to the situation’s politics. However, local politicians refuted that criticism following the arrival of Tropical Storm Matthew.
But the opposition political party publicly critiqued the governing party for their speed in handling the water issue. The opposition even proposed that there should be a declaration of a national water crisis.
Large-Scale Versus Small-Scale Water Solutions
As the water management issue in Barbados escalated to affect the water availability in other parishes, the government held news conferences to inform and update the public about plans to install two new desalination plants.
In water-scarce countries such as Barbados, the energy and technology costs of desalination still beg the question of the plants’ environmental and financial sustainability.
Considering that the general public said that the engagement and information distribution about water management inhibited a solution to the water supply problem, supplementary ways to implement water solutions are required. For example, encouraging the public to participate in water conservation are complementary to the centralized solution of finding additional water sources.
Few Barbadians Take Advantage of Tax Incentives for Water Conservation
In Barbados, there are tax incentives for householders to install rainwater tanks. However, these tanks are not widely utilized to capture and reuse rainwater for non-drinking water purposes.
Other smaller-scale water solutions that would foster public engagement and encourage water conservation include:
- Government investment in citizen science water quality and quantity monitoring
- Continuous water conservation education
- Penalties and fines for commercial/industrial water waste
- A water tax for the tourism industry, which would be waived if water reuse is incorporated into business operations
Essential Services and Policies
Although waste and water management are dire issues in Barbados that directly affect human health, public discussion about employee-related policies were most directly linked to Tropical Storm Matthew. This discourse led to consideration of policies about whether businesses should be penalized for remaining open during the shutdown and whether businesses should be required to compensate employees for pay lost due to national shutdowns or emergencies.
In addition, the public discussed how the private sector should fund this compensation and the safety protocol for business that provide essential private/public services or choose to stay open regardless of a request for a national shutdown.
Barbados Water Conservation Efforts Focus on Improved Collection and Distribution
Tropical Storm Matthew created an opportunity to address a number of environmental priorities in Barbados. For waste management, there is an opportunity to change policies to foster recycling, create recyclable products and reduce waste from composting and recycling.
For water management, there is the chance to change policies for implementing efficient household rainwater collection and start desalination projects. Other policy change opportunities include community-based water conservation and management; investment in water conservation education; solar distillation of water; and household-level wastewater treatment and purification.
It is premature to say that Tropical Storm Matthew led to the authorization of a recycling industrial facility, private sector augmentation of waste collection services and improved public engagement on water solutions. However, after the floodwaters settle, our perspective on what policies must change undergoes reconsideration.
This changed perspective fosters change toward sustainable environmental solutions. However, this change only happens under two key conditions: being sufficiently informed about the root cause of environmental issues and the development of solutions attuned to public commentary and require public engagement for successful implementation.
About the Author
Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science and risk management at FAMU.