Notes From a Water-Scarce Island - Sailors for the Sea

Notes From a Water-Scarce Island

 October 18, 2021  | By: Renata Goodridge

If you spend any extended time on your boat, whether it’s a long weekend or a cruise down the coast, you know what it’s like to live with limited resources: what’s in your battery bank or water tanks at any given time is what you have. In many of the tropical islands we love to visit on our boats—for a regatta, a charter vacation, or during a cruising sabbatical—living with limited resources is a way of life.

In general, the Caribbean has a wet season and dry season. Many islands have little if any groundwater, and rainwater collection is often a major source of a household’s water supply. In recent years, my home island of Barbados has been experiencing shorter and drier wet seasons, which impacts not only people, but livestock and crops as well.

A lack of rain in Barbados has led to dry fields. The green sugarcane fields in the distance are near water sources.

Barbados has a population of about 287,000 residents, and is a popular vacation destination, hosting more than half a million tourists each year. Visitors come and go from our shores, and have a great time swimming, diving, snorkeling and fishing. After tourists leave the beach, they enjoy freshwater showers—as many as they want in their hotel rooms, a comfort they do not likely think twice about.

Tourism has become the mainstay of many island livelihoods since the late 1960s. Freshwater usage increased dramatically with the rise in visitor numbers, and soon local people were going without water while vacationers had plenty to shower with. Despite hotels advising guests to take care with their water usage, our water resources have dwindled more and more with climate change—the signs become obvious when you do not have enough of something basic like potable water.

Empty rain barrel

When the rains don’t fall, the rain barrels start to run dry.

I live on the east coast of Barbados in a small cottage. In 2013, when I began growing food in the ground more earnestly, I was given a 500-gallon tank for rainwater, making it financially practical to grow food. For several years, it seemed that the rainwater tank was always full; but by 2018, the rainy seasons and nighttime rain showers seemed a thing of the past. The whole island of Barbados, despite having a freshwater table, became an island in drought conditions right up until this 2021 hurricane season. Water became very scarce, and coupled with new pipeline installations, for more than a year on my hill, water was only on for a few hours a day. Forget about irrigating with rainwater; it was not falling. I stopped growing food.

Land on the east side of Barbados after a dry spell, June 2021.

I never had a need for a potable water storage tank as the Barbados Water Authority kept the water pipes mostly flowing throughout the 22 years that I have lived in this house. But after almost two years of construction and drought, with the water on for just a few hours every day, in early 2020 I had my landlord put in a potable water tank with an electric pump. Now when the government water is off, I have 250 gallons to work with until it comes back on.

With each passing season, I recognize even more how precious a resource fresh, potable water is for everyone, but especially across all the small island states of the Caribbean. There is a tenacity and patience within the residents of water-scarce islands. Similar to life on a boat, you learn to be very practical about most everything, not just your water usage.

The same land after a rainy period, August 2021.