The BBC is running another scare story on climate change. Tuvalu is running out of drinking water.The only thing missing, in fact, is something along the lines of “nothing like that has ever happened before”. And I would not immediately doubt it. (After a bit more research, however, I would. As droughts on atolls seem to be an old concern.)
The fact of the matter is, that the rising tide mainly consists of the population of island nations that is exploding. They quadrupled in the last 60 years. It should not be surprising, that such nations are running into trouble. (Unsurprisingly for those who have read Jared Diamonds book “Collapse”.) Those with the most trouble have population densities of several hundred people per square kilometer – the Maldives have hit above 1000. As much as Bangladesh … only that the Maldives have no hinterland whatsoever.
Just have a look at the Maldive capital Male. If you are building a city like that, you should know from the start that you’re in for trouble and you better deal with it. And this has in fact nothing to do with rising sea levels, but with the levels as they are. The islands can only be inhabited by a certain number of people. And whether the Maldive government likes to admit it or not, it has probably shot over those limits some time between 1950 and today – when population rose from just under 100,000 (a number that had been constant since the census in 1900) to over 300,000.
It is the natural course of things, that when the population of a country triples, people will increasingly move to ever less favorable land. In other times and places that would be less fertile soil or less available water. In the Maldives, where the only places you could expand to are closer to the sea, it’s risk of flooding. There is no doubt that the Maldives have trouble with the sea that need to be dealt with. But what the Maldives have to adapt to is not the rising tides of the oceans, but the rise of its own population. Just don’t blame on climate change, what can adequately be explained with overpopulation.
For Tuvalu, it is probably a similar story. Its population too has risen quickly in recent decades, needing ever more drinking water and food. In times of a drought, which have always been a concern on atolls, the only recourse (besides desalinating seawater) are the atoll’s aquifers (those are actually the first to hits I got for googling “atoll aquifers” – you just have to know what to google for). Those are not comparable to aquifers in other places. They are shallow and only have a thin layer of fresh water above lots of salt water. They don’t gradually dry up or need deeper wells to access the water. Instead, there is still water in the aquifer if you overuse it, but it’s salt water until the freshwater has been replenished by new rainfalls.
According to the BBC, the salt water is there because of the oceans’ rising tides …
Less extraction from the wells would have prevented the aquifers from depletion – but of course, the water was needed for Tuvalu’s population of 10,000. Its 1950 population of less than 5,000 could probably have stayed out of trouble. Don’t forget Tuvalu’s population density of 360 per square kilometer is among the top of the world – but it lacks the mountains, rivers, water reservoirs and deep aquifers that serve populations of larger countries.