Water crises are a growing problem across the Caribbean islands

In the popular imagination, the Caribbean is a paradise, an exotic place to escape to. But behind the images of balmy beaches and lush hotel grounds lies a crisis, the likes of which its residents have never experienced.

The Caribbean islands are facing a water crisis, and their governments have warned that water scarcity could become the new norm.

For the past five years, every island in the region has experienced some form of water shortage. For example, Trinidad is experiencing its worst drought in recent memory, and residents are under water restrictions until at least the end of June 2024, with fines for anyone breaking the rules.

Dominica, considered the nature island of the Caribbean for its mountain rainforests, is seeing a significant reduction in freshwater resources and increasingly frequent water shortages. In Grenada, known as the spice island, drought is affecting water systems across the island.

An apartment building with large blue water barrels sitting outside each unit on platforms similar to where you'd see a window air conditioner.

Jamaica is also grappling with water restrictions and has had to resort to water shut-offs in recent years, limiting water availability to a few hours a day in some areas. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had to ration water. Barbados has experienced several water bans in recent years.

In fact, recent data shows that the Caribbean is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world.

I study the intersection of critical infrastructure and disasters, particularly in the Caribbean. Safe water is essential for all human activities and public health. That’s why it’s important to understand the root causes of water crises and find effective, affordable ways to improve water supply systems.

3 reasons why water demand is higher than supply

Changing rainfall patterns and droughts are putting pressure on water supplies in the Caribbean, but demand for water is outstripping supply for a number of reasons.

1. Rapid urbanization and industrialization

The Caribbean is one of the most rapidly urbanizing regions in the world. About three-quarters of the population live in cities, and that percentage is rising, putting pressure on public water systems.

At the same time, increased industrialization and commercialization of agriculture have degraded water quality and in some cases affected water sensitive catchments, affecting the soil’s ability to retain water.

People on the beach with a large plane landing and hotels in the background on Sint Maarten.People on the beach with a large plane landing and hotels in the background on Sint Maarten.

This competing demand for limited fresh water has reduced stream flows and drawn water from sensitive sources as a result. In North Dunnery, a large farming community in St Lucia, water shortages have left residents collecting water from rivers and other sources for their homes and farms.

Uncontrolled groundwater extraction can also exacerbate the problem. Many islands depend on groundwater.

For example, 90% of the water supply in Barbados comes from groundwater, while in Jamaica it is 84%. However, increasing demand and changes in annual rainfall patterns are affecting the ability of aquifers or groundwater to recharge. As a result, supply is not keeping up with demand. This is a huge problem for the island of Utila, located off the coast of Honduras, where the current rate of aquifer recharge is only 2.5% per year. By comparison, Barbados has a recharge rate of 15% to 30% of its annual rainfall.

2. Water intensive tourism industry

It’s no secret that the Caribbean is very popular with tourists, and that tourism economies depend on large amounts of water.

Even during water rationing, water is first diverted to hotels and other tourist-dependent sites. That could leave local residents without water for hours or days at a time and fines for violating usage restrictions.

Tourism not only increases water consumption but also pollution of water resources. Building golf courses to attract more tourists increases water demand and tourism runoff.

3. Weak water infrastructure governance

Another problem water systems face is poor governance that results in too much treated water being lost before it even reaches the customer.

Water losses – known as non-taxable water – will typically be below 30% in a well-functioning water utility. In the Caribbean, the average nonrevenue water is 46%, with some as high as 75%.

Reasons range from lack of proper management practices to metering inaccuracy, leakage and theft.

Climate change and extreme weather conditions worsen water health

These troubled water systems can struggle on good days. Severe weather, such as hurricanes and floods, can damage infrastructure, leading to long outages and costly repairs.

The Caribbean is the second most disaster-prone region in the world. The islands face earthquakes, landslides, devastating hurricanes and other destructive storms. As global temperatures and sea levels rise, the risk of extreme weather and storm surges causing erosion, flooding and saltwater pollution increases.

Three months after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, well over 14% of the Caribbean population was still without potable water. Hurricane Dorian in 2019 left Grand Bahama Utility Co. and the country’s Water and Sewerage Corp. with damage of $54 million. A year after Dorian, WSC was “still working to restore operations to pre-Hurricane Dorian levels.”

How hybrid rainwater harvesting can help

Improving access to water in the Caribbean means working on all of these challenges. Better governance and investment can help reduce water loss through theft and leakage. Government and social pressure and educating tourists can help reduce waste at hotels and resorts.

There are also ways to increase water supply. One involves being more strategic about how the islands use a practice the region has relied on for centuries: rainwater harvesting.

Rainwater harvesting involves capturing rainwater, often from where it runs off roof tops, and storing it for future use. It can replace irrigation, or the water can be treated for domestic use.

A large tank with an intake pipe above and tubes running from the bottom sits on a cement slab in a yard next to a wildflower hedge.A large tank with an intake pipe above and tubes running from the bottom sits on a cement slab in a yard next to a wildflower hedge.

Currently, rainwater harvesting is not managed as part of the islands’ centralized water management system. Instead, families pay the cost to finance, build and maintain their own systems. Technical support can be difficult to find, leaving households struggling with seasonal variations in water quantity and quality. Risks to drinking water safety are therefore difficult to identify.

If rainwater harvesting were instead combined with central water systems in a hybrid water management model, I believe this could help expand safe rainwater harvesting and address water issues in the region.

It’s a relatively new concept, and integrating decentralized sources can be complicated, including connecting separate pipes, but it could reduce water stress. Decentralized sources, such as rainwater harvesting, groundwater or recycled greywater, could act as backup water sources during shortages or provide water for non-potable purposes, such as flushing toilets or irrigation, to reduce demand for treated water.

Engineers in Australia are weighing the potential of hybrid water systems to help meet the challenges of providing safe, secure and sustainable water in the future.

Fulfilling human rights on the islands

The World Health Organization has declared that access to an adequate, safe and reliable water supply is a basic human right, and to achieve this, water suppliers have a responsibility to provide adequate quantities of potable water.

Hybrid water systems could help ensure water safety and security for island communities and improve the resilience of water systems amid human and environmental pressures facing the Caribbean.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Farah Nibbs, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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Farah Nibbs does not work for, consult with, or own shares in, or receive funding from, any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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