Water every third day for Puerto Ricans as drought approaches historic levels


A man and a boy try to fish while standing on the dry shores of the almost empty La Plata reservoir in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. (Photo: The Guardian/Alvin Baez/Reuters)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Thursday June 25, 2015 – Amid one of the worst droughts in Puerto Rico’s history, the government has ramped-up drinking water rationing for 200,000 users in the San Juan area, restricting households to water every third day.

Rainfall deficits have been mounting since 2013, drying up rivers and streams at a record-breaking pace and making the possibility of fires a genuine concern.

The situation in Puerto Rico is nevertheless much more complex than just a lack of rain, according to Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense.

In May, which is traditionally one of the wettest months of the year in the US island territory, Governor Alejandro Padilla issued a state of emergency over the drought, which he blamed partly on the island’s struggling economy and the low priority given to water storage by previous governors.

Water rationing is nevertheless thought likely to worsen the fragile economy, currently mired in an eight-year recession and staggering under a US$73 billion debt burden.

According to John Morales, a Miami-based meteorologist who provides weather forecasting services for the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s government could actually be underestimating the seriousness of the problem, moreover.

The island’s dwindling reservoirs are reportedly so silted up from bygone years of intense tropical downpours that they’re not able to store as much water as the government thinks they can.

“The capacity of the reservoirs has been severely compromised by sedimentation and lack of maintenance,” Morales said, adding that the island’s “crumbling infrastructure” is producing “huge losses” of water from innumerable leaks.

Meanwhile, Holthaus reports that for the Caribbean, water availability is at the centre of an uncertain future—made worse by climate change and a precarious economic dependence on tourism.

In the shorter term, with a building El Niño threatening continued dry conditions across Central America and the Caribbean, the next several months don’t provide much hope for a turnaround in terms of rainfall.

Insurance is thought to be one possible longer-term solution, with the G7 recently highlighting a novel extreme weather-based insurance scheme in the Caribbean as an option to scale up assistance to hundreds of millions of people on the front lines of climate change.

At present, when disaster strikes, most of the world’s poor are pretty much on their own. Under the Caribbean scheme, that risk is shared among countries, with participants receiving cash pay-outs in bad years to soften the blow of any single extreme event.

Unfortunately, the Caribbean plan doesn’t currently cover drought.

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