Water everywhere – and soon it will be safe to drink on Ebeye

Published on Monday, 11 July 2016

Published by Sally Shute-Trembath on Monday, 11 July 2016

Ebeye has a higher population density than Hong Kong.
Ebeye has a higher population density than Hong Kong.

Ebeye, the second largest city in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is a small but densely populated island in the North Pacific. While Ebeye Island itself is tiny, it is within Kwajalein, the world's largest coral atoll with about 100 islands surrounding its lagoon. Settled on about 32 hectares of land, Ebeye has a population of up to 15,000 people, about 50% of which is estimated to be under the age of 18.

You can drive around the island in just 15 minutes via the one-way ring road that snakes around the perimeter of Ebeye, with a population density higher than Hong Kong. The population density is due to:  the 1,000 plus people who work on the nearby Kwajalein US missile base and their extended families; a high proportion of residents have moved to Ebeye from neighboring atolls, and some people from the mid-corridor section of the atoll were relocated to Ebeye. The mid-corridor section is off limits for residents under current arrangements with the US missile testing program. 

Ebeye has minimal groundwater reserves and no freshwater streams, so the island relies on a desalination plant for 78% of its water supply. The plant, operated by local firm Kwajalein Atoll Joint Utility Resources, produces a little over 500,000 liters of water (34 liters per resident) per day, but half of that is lost due to leaks in the supply network.

ADB and the governments of Australia and the US are working together to increase access to safe water and improve sanitation on the island through the Ebeye Water Supply and Sanitation Project. The project aims to connect all households to upgraded freshwater and sewage systems, and drastically raise hygiene levels. This will result in an increase in the minimum quantity of freshwater produced to 105 liters per person per day; reduce sewage overflow events; treat all sewage to at least primary standards, and engage 90% of the population in hygiene awareness courses. It will also boost the capacity of the local utility to operate and maintain the new installations.

Ebeye Hospital Chief of Staff Dr. Joaquin Nasa Jr. says the atoll has a high incidence of water-borne diseases, stemming from an inefficient water supply system that is only able to service each household for up to one hour of safe drinking water per week. Water-borne diseases are among the most frequent cases he sees at the hospital.

The water supply and sanitation project will help upgrade the existing network, and raise awareness of basic hygiene practices to raise public health standards on drought-prone Ebeye, where right now the main water source is a public tap located in the middle of town. It’s a bustling center, with people coming and going all day, loaded up with receptacles of all different shapes and sizes for their daily water needs. Some of the local people say the public tap is also a meeting place where you can catch up with friends and family as they collect their life preserving cargo. 

Ebeye resident Tonki Riklong says that when the project is finished, he won’t miss the ten-plus trips he makes every day to the public tap, hauling 55-gallon drums on his bike to collect water for his family and neighbors. Tonki says everyone in town has heard about the project, and is excited about the prospect of having 24-hour access to safe water.

Gretha Nam is a 38-year-old accounts clerk at a local construction firm. She is also responsible for collecting water for her family of four at the public tap twice a week. Sometimes her children, aged 13 and 8, help her. Gretha says her family is fortunate as they have a tank at home for water storage, which means she doesn’t need to visit the public tap every day. She looks forward to having access to water for drinking, cooking and bathing every day.

The first phase of construction under the project, the building of the new desalination plant, begins later this year. The project team confirms the people of Ebeye will notice improvements in their water supply as soon as April 2017. The project will run for 6 years, with a target completion date of December 2022.