Water (In)Security: One of the biggest threats to Caribbean SIDS’ national security

Alicia Nicholls

When we think national security in the region, terrorism and drug trafficking are often the first threats which come to mind. However, if there is anything that the current drought stifling the islands of the Caribbean highlights is that water (in)security has far-reaching security and development implications. While the water (in)security problem is not new nor Caribbean-specific, the small island developing states (SIDS) which make up the majority of Caribbean states are especially vulnerable to changes in precipitation created by El Nino and more widely, climate change. What is undeniable is that water (in)security is a national and regional security problem which requires an enhanced national and regional response.

Water is a fundamental resource, a fact recognised by the UN General Assembly on June 28, 2010 in the Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (Resolution 64/262).The most common working definition of “water security” is that provided by UN-Water (2013). The Agency defines water security as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”.

Water security is inextricably linked to other forms of security as well as to social and economic development. Water access is needed for domestic consumption and is a necessary input in agriculture, tourism and other productive sectors.

Many islands of the Caribbean rank among the most water-stressed and water scarce countries in the world. According to data provided in FAO AQUASTAT, average rainfall in the islands of the Eastern Caribbean ranges from 2350mm in Grenada to as low as 1030mm in Antigua & Barbuda. Unlike in many developing countries where access to clean water is an issue, the main issue for most Caribbean countries is not so much water quality but water scarcity. Caribbean countries have two distinct seasons; dry and rainy (hurricane season), with rain from weather systems during the rainy season being important for recharging surface water and underground aquifers. Experts attribute the longer than normal dry season and relatively ‘quiet’ hurricane season currently being experienced to El Nino, a phenomenon in which above average warming of the Pacific Ocean affects weather patterns.

There is no denying that this current drought affecting the region has been among the most severe in recent years. Some countries like Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba have reportedly suffered crop losses and concomitant drops in agricultural production as a result of the low rainfall. Other countries have reported lower river volumes or dried stream beds. In May, the Government of St Lucia declared a water emergency in light of the drought conditions. In Barbados which depends wholly on freshwater sources, yields from freshwater aquifers are low and the lack of water for days on end in several rural communities has been a hot topic on call-in programmes. Sporadic rains from weather systems have so far not been enough to replenish the region’s diminishing reservoirs and aquifers.

These water resources stresses are not new for Caribbean SIDS. The jury is out on how long this current iteration of El Nino, believed to be one of the most severe on record, is likely to last. Besides EL Nino, the Caribbean is already being challenged by the effects of climate change, which has seen changes in precipitation patterns resulting in longer dry spells and more catastrophic natural disasters. Freshwater aquifers in coastal areas  can be affected by saltwater intrusion if sea levels continue to rise. Aside from this, growing populations, especially in urban corridors, will place increasing demands on an already scarce potable water supply. All of this does not bode well for the region’s fragile water resources.

What is clear is that water (in)security must be on the top of national and regional security agendas in the region not just during drought times but always. How do we in the Caribbean translate water scarcity to water security?  The short-term mitigation strategies currently being employed include water rationing, the installation of temporary standpipes, and the digging of more bore holes. In Barbados the Minister of Agriculture announced there will be community storage tanks placed in communities across the island. Some businesses  and households across the region have temporarily cut back on unnecessary water use, while public service campaigns have been encouraging households to conserve water by eliminating the use of scarce drinking water for activities like washing cars or watering lawns.

Longer term strategies will need to be dealt with both at the national and regional level to address water availability and quality. Past droughts have compelled many Caribbean countries to construct desalination plants. There may be the need to construct more desalination plants or increase the capacity of existing plants. One of the major water governance challenges for water service providers is dealing with aging water supply systems and reducing the high incidence of unaccounted for water. The Barbados Water Authority in Barbados has reported that it has embarked on several initiatives to tackle the current water crisis affecting several parts of the island, including the introduction of metering, investment in an extensive main laying and upgrading program to deal with aging infrastructure and reduce the incidence of unaccounted for water. More sustainable water management practices on both a micro and macro level should mean less leakage.

Contamination of water supplies through pollution also has an impact on water availability and quality. Steeper fines should be put in place for dumping in watersheds and water sources. Better waste disposal practices should be encouraged to prevent contamination by sewage and waste water run off from households and businesses.

Industries such as agriculture, the tourism sector and industry account for a large amount of the water consumed. Farmers should be educated about the use of environmentally sustainable farming practices. Once feasible, tax incentives or credits could be given to encourage the installation of water tanks and the use of rainwater harvesting and waste water recycling.Tourism, including hotels and cruise ships, places huge demands on water resources, much more than domestic consumption. Perhaps more incentives could be put in place for hotels to use more efficient water conservation and management technologies and techniques.

Dealing with the water supply and demand gap is a development and natural security challenge. It is a regional problem which requires the collective minds of regional leaders and civil society, not just in CARICOM but the wider Caribbean. Many of the larger macro solutions aimed at adaptation and mitigation will be challenging for cash-strapped Caribbean states. Continued funding, technical assistance and capacity-building from state and non-state development partners will be key. There is also the increased need for regional standards on sustainable water management and the sharing of water management best practices.  For all our sakes, a water secure Caribbean is a goal we all need to prioritise.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc. is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and international relations.

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