by Austin Hay
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Water is the oil of the future. It’s a phrase that’s often been repeated in the engineering classes I’ve taken at USC, but it couldn’t be truer than in the case of Palau. The island nation, some 500 miles east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles south of Japan, is completely dependent upon natural sources for its water needs. With an average of 11 inches of rainfall per month, precipitation provides the main source of freshwater to people living in the Republic of Palau.
However, with no major clean water sources beyond precipitation, and currently no renewable technologies such as groundwater recharge or desalinization, the future of Palau’s water supply is dependent on adaptive water management strategies.
According to the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission, over the next twenty years the demand for water is expected to grow more than 3-fold (from 4.5 million gallons to over 15 million). As a result, the water quality standards that Palau currently has will become more difficult to maintain without a system upgrade to handle larger flows of water through the treatment process.
Ironically, much of the increased demand for water stems from the increased popularity of Palau as a destination hotspot for ocean ecotourism. Such issues have not gone unnoticed by resource managers and local officials who recognize that an increase in anthropogenic activities will likely have a negative impact on the dynamics of local watersheds and coastal resources. For example, the compounded effects of terrestrial runoff (e.g., sedimentation), human pollution (e.g., sewage), and chemical contaminants (e.g., gas, oil) coupled with a higher water demand might result in saltwater intrusion into primary sources of freshwater.
Fortunately, however, these concerns have taken center stage with Palau’s government officials and local activists. Recently, Palauan President Johnson Toribiong endorsed the country’s first National Water Policy. The central aim of the policy is to protect water resources, as well as to ensure access to safe, affordable, and sustainable water supplies and wastewater services.
Will the clean water distribution systems on Palau be expanded to accommodate a growing number of residents and tourists? Only time will tell, but this one question that must be addressed if Palau is to avoid a dire water crisis.
About the Author: Austin Hay is senior in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and will graduate this May with a BS in Environmental Engineering. Austin is an alumnus of the Guam and Palau 2011 expedition, and will accompany the 2012 course as a volunteer assistant. In Fall 2012, Austin will be pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering at Stanford University.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies