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El Niño is behind a life-threatening drought in the islands of the West Pacific

The western Pacific, including the Marshall Islands, are enduring a life-threatening drought because of El Niño. (Dan Zak/The Washington Post)

It’s hard to imagine the tropical Pacific lacking for water. But the small island states in the Western Pacific are in the midst of a life-threatening drought caused by El Niño with no end in sight. The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have all declared states of emergency. NOAA predicts that drought conditions will only worsen, with below average rainfall forecast for the next two to three months.

El Niño is best known as a harbinger of wet conditions on the West Coast, but on the other side of the International Date Line it often causes a drastic decrease in precipitation. Rainfall over the western Pacific islands was significantly below normal for March — less than 10 percent of average. Some islands saw no rainfall at all.

In Palau, the situation is critical; the last four months of rainfall was the lowest since 1951. One of two of the islands’ fresh water reservoirs is bone dry. The Palau government has stated that it soon may be unable to fill firetrucks and the electrical grid could shut down if there is insufficient water to cool the generators. The functioning of the hospital, schools and prison are all at serious risk due to the shortage of potable water.

On the Marshall Islands, the capital — Majuro — “is down to its trace water reserves,” the Diplomat writes. “Water is being meted out in the city only once per week for a four-hour period, forcing each family to allocate their water reserves carefully to last them into the following week.”

The Marshall Islands are made up of atolls, which complicate the drought because of their unique hydrology – only the largest islands have an actual water table. Because the underlying rock is so porous, the water tables are very thin and deplete rapidly.

The Marshall Islands collect and store fresh water as it runs off the air strip, which, the WorldPost reports, is used to hydrate tens of thousands of citizens:

During a normal week the water only flows for 12 hours. In prolonged droughts, which are almost certain to happen in 2016, the reservoirs can get depleted to the last drop. The country can hold on for only a few months without rain. Thirsty Marshallese, many of whom rely on their own much smaller rainwater catchment containers, won’t have anything to drink or wash with. Dehydration, starvation, malnutrition and disease have been known to follow. Crops fail. Sensitive groundwater reservoirs become contaminated.

NOAA reports that water rationing is ongoing in Majuro, and the damage to food crops is likely across all of the Marshall Islands. “The health of food crops should be monitored, and food assistance could become an issue if damage to plants and fruits is irreversible,” NOAA writes. “The lack of fresh water may result in a deterioration of people’s health, with an increase in pink eye and gastro-intestinal problems.”