Mitigating drought impacts in remote island atolls with traditional water usage behaviors and modern technology

No Thumbnail Available
File version
MacDonald, MC
Elliott, M
Langidrik, D
Chan, T
Saunders, A
Stewart-Koster, B
Taafaki, IJ
Bartram, J
Hadwen, WL
Griffith University Author(s)
Primary Supervisor
Other Supervisors
File type(s)

Adaptation to drought is particularly challenging on remote island atolls, such as those found in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), a nation of 58,000 populating 29 low-lying coral atolls spread over >2 million km2. Exposure to consecutive atmospheric hazards, such as meteorological floods and droughts diminish scarce water resources and erode the resilience of island communities. Drought impact mitigation measures must supply emergency drinking water to stricken communities, while simultaneously conserving natural sources in order to reduce their vulnerability to subsequent events. Household surveys (n = 298) and focus group discussions (n = 16) in eight RMI communities revealed that 86% of households have experienced drought and 88% reported using multiple water sources to meet normal household needs. With no surface water and a thin freshwater lens (FWL), rainwater collected from rooftops is the most common household water source. The traditional use of carved hollows in the base of coconut trees to collect rainwater (“Mammaks”) appears to have been displaced by large rainwater tanks. However, rationing of rainwater for consumption only during drought was widely reported, with private wells supporting non-consumptive uses. Reverse osmosis (RO) desalination units have provided relief during drought emergencies but concerns have been raised around dependency, maintenance challenges, and loss of traditional water practices. Most notably, RO use has the potential to change the anthroposhpere by adversely affecting the FWL; 86% of RO units were installed at island-centre where excessive pumping can cause upconing, making the FWL brackish. Balancing the introduction of desalination technology to mitigate water shortages with maintenance of traditional water conservation practices to preserve the quantity and quality of the FWL is a promising strategy on island atolls that requires further investigation.

Journal Title
Science of the Total Environment
Conference Title
Book Title
Thesis Type
Degree Program
Publisher link
Patent number
Grant identifier(s)
Rights Statement
Rights Statement
Item Access Status
Access the data
Related item(s)
Environmental sciences
Climate change impacts and adaptation
Pacific Peoples environmental knowledges
Environmentally sustainable engineering
Marshall Islands
Multiple water source use (MWSU)
Pacific Island Countries (PICs)
Reverse osmosis
Persistent link to this record
MacDonald, MC; Elliott, M; Langidrik, D; Chan, T; Saunders, A; Stewart-Koster, B; Taafaki, IJ; Bartram, J; Hadwen, WL, Mitigating drought impacts in remote island atolls with traditional water usage behaviors and modern technology, Science of the Total Environment, 2020, 741, pp. 140230