Thirst for Change – A Caribbean Story of Health and Water Sustainability

BELMOPAN, Belize – “At the time I was living in Jamaica, there was no rain for quite a few months. There were very severe water restrictions where we would only receive water once a week” says Dr. Ayanna Alexander, a medical doctor and public health professional from Trinidad and Tobago.

BIGriverA dried river in the Dominica Republic (CCCCC Photo)Dr. Alexander has seen firsthand the devastating effects of water scarcity on the health of her patients. Working in the pediatric emergency department, she observed that children, in particular, were vulnerable to dehydration and gastrointestinal illnesses.

“It was very difficult, especially for those younger children who cannot adapt and recover fast from the illnesses.” But she admits that at that time, she did not make the link to climate change.

Dr. Alexander completed an internship with the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) in March, a requirement of the University of the West Indies Climate Change and Health Leaders Fellowship program, under the EU/CARIFORUM Strengthening Climate Resilient Health Systems in the Caribbean Project.

“It’s frustrating to see bigger countries with more resources not meeting their reduction goals, but as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), we can use our block to make positive changes,” said  Dr. Alexander, who shared her perspective during her time in Belize.

“We can’t just sit back and wait for change to happen, we need to be an example for the world. Moving away from a reactive standpoint on health and focusing on social and environmental determinants can make us a healthier and more resilient population.”

The Caribbean is no stranger to the devastating effects of climate change, and the impact on the region’s water resources has been severe, posing a significant threat to public health. Increasingly, frequent and intense storms and hurricanes, rising sea levels, and droughts all contribute to water pollution, contamination, dehydration, and the spread of waterborne diseases.

Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico in 2017 is a prime example of how damaging water supply systems can leave hospitals and clinics without safe drinking water, resulting in a surge of waterborne illnesses that place vulnerable populations at risk of serious health issues.

In addition to hurricanes, coastal flooding and rising sea levels can cause salt water to contaminate freshwater sources, making it difficult for people to access potable water sources. Water scarcity caused by climate-induced dry periods also leads to decreased hygiene and sanitation practices that exacerbate the spread of waterborne and foodborne illnesses.

“When water is scarce, farmers have difficulty providing food,” says Dr. Alexander, adding, “we have had instances where farmers have been watering plants with unclean water which increases those potential risks for illnesses.”

The quantity and quality of freshwater sources like surface and groundwater are also being affected, leading to shortages and increased costs to obtain water. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the region, which rely heavily on rainwater harvesting, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of decreased rainwater availability.

Additionally, extreme weather events can lead to power outages, disrupting the operation of water treatment plants and making it challenging for people to access water.

As the scorching sun beats down in Barbados, the island is facing a severe drought, leading to the Barbados Water Authority to implement community water tanks in remote parishes such as St. John, St. Lucy, and St. Andrew.

“The uncertainty of finding water at the communal tank left people unable to wash or shower. Some even had to rely on going to the homes of friends or relatives to get ready for work. It was a daily struggle,’’ said the Chair of the Global Water Partnership-Caribbean (GWP-C)’s technical committee, Dr. Adrian Cashman, an expert in water resources management.

As the impact of climate change on the Caribbean’s water resources continues to worsen, Dr Cashman highlights some of the interconnected gaps that the region faces and the need to incorporate climate change predictions into hydrology models to better understand the impact of changing weather patterns. Long-term planning is needed as well as reconsideration of the region’s approach to wastewater management.

Despite these challenges and gaps, Dr. Cashman remains optimistic that solutions can be found.

“There has been a growing momentum in the Caribbean to address water management issues and innovative solutions are being developed to adapt to a changing climate. Efforts are also being made to mobilize financing to implement solutions, indicating progress in the region’s water management practices,” said Dr. Cashman.

The linkages between climate change, water resources, and public health are clear, and it is crucial to prioritize the safety and security of water for all people in the region.

Most recently, the CCCCC,  under the European Union-funded Intra-ACP GCCA+ Programme in the Caribbean: Enhancing Climate Resilience in CARIFORUM countries, installed several water storage tanks across St. Kitts and Nevis in schools, health centers, and disaster shelters.

Director of Environment in St. Kitts-Nevis, June Hughes, says climate change has made water shortages common in the twin-island Federation.

“The tanks provide a plan B and secondary source. Previously, what was happening at schools is that once the water was cut, they would have to send school children home because you cannot operate without water.”

The water crisis in the Caribbean is a significant concern for schools, as shortages can disrupt daily operations and compromise student well-being.

The CCCCC said that by providing alternative water sources, “we can protect educational opportunities and ensure safe learning environments.

“As climate change continues to impact water resources, posing threats to public health, it is imperative that we take action. Let us advocate for sustainable practices, support water conservation initiatives, and actively engage in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. “Together, we can make a difference, safeguard our communities, and preserve our precious water resources for a safer and healthier future,” it added”.