Water, Water Everywhere? Caribbean Adds to Global Drought

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Californians are suffering an historic drought, Brazilians are rationing water and Chile’s Atacama desert is creeping south. Now Caribbean nations from Jamaica to Trinidad that have been praying for rain are counting their losses.

A region vulnerable to devastating hurricanes, the Caribbean is enduring its worst drought in at least five years due to the El Nino weather pattern. The phenomenon, which has dried Canadian wheat fields, caused palm oil prices to rise and risks boosting global food inflation, is leaving some islands with as little as half their average rainfall.

Puerto Rico has reduced access to water for almost 350,000 customers. Dominican mango growers are producing less than half of the more than 100 varieties they grow due to a dearth of rain and dependable irrigation systems. In western Jamaica, a brush fire exacerbated by dry conditions destroyed hundreds of acres of the famed Blue Mountain coffee crop.

“California gets all the attention but in the Caribbean the situation is worse because large-scale water transport is not possible at all,” said Toby Ault, a professor in Cornell University’s earth and atmospheric sciences department who monitors the Caribbean.

Even if the rainy season that began June 1 brings temporary relief, researchers believe the Caribbean is entering a period of extended dry periods never before seen.

Rationing Expands

With almost 1.6 million people affected by drought and 12 of the 22 rivers that supply reservoirs at record lows, Puerto Rico on July 6 added 40,000 more customers to the 307,000 already receiving water every other or third day.

Days earlier, Jamaica turned off some taps at night in the capital Kingston and cut off water to residents in the adjacent city of Portmore during the day. Drought late last year caused widespread agricultural damage, deepening two consecutive quarters of economic contraction on the island.

In the Dominican Republic, “there are people in some communities in Santo Domingo that haven’t had any liquid in the pipes for a month,” said Janina Segura, who oversees the natural resources department in the Center for Agriculture and Forestry Development. “It’s been too dry for farmers to plant basic grains like black beans and export crops such as mangoes have had huge losses.”

In the southwest Dominican city of Bani, stream beds have dried up, exposing sharp rocks and white sand, and no water is flowing through a channel built to supply the farmers who grow one of the country’s most popular varieties of mango, Banilejo. On Andres Mejia’s farm, trees aren’t flowering.

‘Lost Crop’

“The fruit is not going to develop,” said Mejia, president of the Bani Mango Producers Association. “If it doesn’t start raining soon, the export crop will be lost.”

There is at least a 90 percent chance that El Nino, caused by above-average sea surface temperatures off equatorial South America’s Pacific coast, will last through next winter and an 80 percent chance it will endure into spring 2016, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From Jamaica through the small islands of the eastern Caribbean south to Trinidad and Tobago, a drought watch will continue through September, according to the Barbados-based Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology.

Guyana rice acreage and cattle meanwhile are also under water stress, according to its agriculture minister. Expanding Trinidad’s desalination plant is under consideration to move away from an over-reliance on surface water sources, its prime minister said.

Even if storms bring periodic soakings, it’s unlikely to be enough to recharge rivers and reservoirs, Ault said. Instead, he sees this year’s drought as being replicated in future years.

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“Most of what is happening this year in the Caribbean is related to El Nino,” he said. “But what climate change can do is weight the dice toward making multiyear and multidecade droughts more likely.”