08 February 2015

Harvesting the Heavens to adapt to Climate Change


In the Pacific region, climate change is causing serious degradation of the coastal environment and natural resources on which Pacific islanders depend. Increasingly variable rainfall, cyclones, floods, droughts, and decreasing water quality are so significant that they threaten the economic development and the health of their population.

Atoll island states, such as the Republic of Kiribati, have water supply problems that are among the most critical in the world. Thin lenses of fresh groundwater floating over seawater comprise the major source of fresh water. Groundwater is extremely vulnerable to frequent El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO)–related droughts, and salinization due to storm surges and sea-level rise.

Kiribati's 32 atolls have an average height above mean sea level of just two meters (6-1/2 feet). Kiribati, with a total population of just above 100,000, is one of the world’s countries that is predicted to be the first in danger of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. i-Kiribati depend mostly on potable groundwater in shallow wells for their drinking water needs.

However, this supply of water is severely under threat by climate change and water quality is already compromised due to pollution from inadequate sanitation practices. Kiribati ranks amongst the countries in the region with lowest access to improved drinking water (67%) and sanitation (40%) and a high rate of open defecation (36%). As a consequence, Kiribati has one of the highest rates of under-five mortality and diarrhoea in the region, mostly affecting children. As communities on outer islands in Kiribati live predominantly in traditional houses with thatched roofs, they have not been used to collecting rainwater for their domestic water supply and rainwater harvesting and storage remains an under-utilized option to provide access to safe drinking water.


UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Public Works and Utilities and island councils to promote the use of rainwater harvesting at communal buildings with suitable corrugated iron roofs such as traditional meeting places (maneabas), health centres, churches and schools.
Child fetching water from a well in the outer island of Nonouti in Kiribati.
©UNICEF Pacific/2004/Overmars
In collaboration with the government and the European Union, UNICEF is implementing a water and sanitation project in the outer islands of Kiribati covering all 16 atolls and half of all the villages in the Gilbert Group. UNICEF is focusing on installing new rainwater harvesting systems with safe storage facilities. Specific goals of the programme include enhancing the community’s ownership and capacity to ensure sustainable operation and maintenance.

Projected Results

For many i-Kiribati, the amount of water available for daily household use is limited to 10-15 litre per person. Additional rainwater harvesting provided through the project, is augmenting access to safe water at homes, schools and health facilities and is providing much needed storage in times of drought. Rainwater harvesting is a promising practice for Kiribati and is teaching Kiribati children about environmental adaptation

For more information:

Marc Overmars: movermars@unicef.org
UNICEF Pacific Office

Alex Heikens: aheikens@unicef.org

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