February 17, 2010

By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press

Pohnpei, FSM -In the FSM, the first four to five months of the year are considered to be the driest times of the year. It's expected, but when El Niņo conditions act in the Pacific Ocean, dry conditions can become life threatening droughts, especially in inhabited outer islands of the FSM where water supplies are already limited.

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), "El Niņo is a disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the Tropical Pacific having important consequences for weather and climate around the globe." It involves a cyclical increase in water temperatures that affects, among other things sea levels, temperature, and rainfall most notably in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Rain doesn't fall on atolls the same way that it does in the mountainous islands of the FSM. When it does fall residents collect it and save it. The atolls themselves have no significant naturally occurring way to store the water. Outer islands residents can only collect and save so much water and when it runs out they need help if they are to live.

Even though current El Niņo conditions could develop into a life threatening situation for outer island residents, Charles "Chip" Guard, Warning Coordination Meteorologist of the Weather Forecast Office of Guam said that there is no reason to panic. He has briefed emergency service agencies in the FSM and they are making preparations to provide water when, where, and if it is needed.

Andrew Yatilman agrees. Yatilman directs the FSM national government's emergency services efforts. He said that his department has begun to make enquiries amongst FSM businesses to see what stocks of water supplies are currently available and at what cost. He said that if water deliveries need to be made to outer islands, the MS Voyager and MS Hapilmohol could make those deliveries to all islands that need water in a reasonable and effective length of time.

Guard said that current El Niņo conditions are not as severe as they were in 1998 or in 1983. He said that his office had been monitoring what they thought would prove to be a weak El Niņo but that in the month of December the conditions intensified. Currently his office rates the current El Niņo conditions as moderate.

During the early stages of the El Niņo the four states of the FSM experienced wetter than normal conditions. Guard said that the FSM was lucky in that no major tropical storms threatened any of its islands during that time. Storms that did develop did so further west than they normally do which impacted Guam and the Marianas Islands but not the FSM.

For now, the threat of El Niņo caused tropical storms in the FSM is minimal but the threat could return for Chuuk and Yap in April or May.

He said that because heavy rains lasted as long as they did during El Niņo conditions, the impact on the main islands of the FSM will likely be less drastic than they might have been otherwise.

The threat now is an FSM drought.

Guard, who was in the FSM principally to provide briefings to FSM emergency service officials in order help them to understand worst case scenarios in the FSM said that for most of the mountainous main islands in the FSM the moderate El Niņo would probably be "an inconvenience" but would not likely be life threatening.

He said that Pohnpei and Kosrae will likely experience a 30% decrease in average rainfall during the period of the El Niņo conditions. Chuuk and Yap could suffer a more intense 40% decrease in rainfall during that time.

Rains may return to Kosrae by late April or early May. The other states may have to wait as late as June before the normal pattern of rainfall returns.

"March will be the driest period," he predicted and encouraged all residents of the FSM to begin conserving water now. This season is probably not the best time for car wash fund raisers or other water intensive activities.

Fire danger on all of the islands will be higher than normal during the El Niņo conditions. In 1998 nearly 20% of Pohnpei was burned in accidental fires. In that same year Guam experienced 1500 fires. Guard said that if residents are not aware of the impact of dry conditions fire could indeed be a danger in the FSM again. A burning cigarette butt thrown out the window of a passing car into dry vegetation could spark a fire that in combination with strong trade winds could quickly burn out of control. Residents should be particularly careful about burning debris during this time.

Pohnpei Police Chief Joe Roby said during an event unrelated to El Niņo conditions that he was concerned about the fact that Pohnpei has only one fire truck and that the Department of Public Safety, under the direction of Director Lucas Carlos is already keeping a vigil.

Guard said that state governments need to keep in mind residents of rural areas whose drinking water needs are not serviced by public utilities and told those governments that they need to begin making plans to deliver water to them if the time comes.

He said that during this dry time rivers may not completely dry up but they may become stagnant and that residents should boil water if the water has come directly from a river or spring.

Even when there are not drought conditions residents who rely on river or spring water for their own consumption should boil that water before using it. The Conservation Society of Pohnpei's Director, Patterson Shed said during an event at Pohnpei's Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, February 12 that a recent study concluded that in Pohnpei there are more than 3000 pig pens and outhouses on Pohnpei's shores.

Guard said that during past El Niņo conditions, sakau (kava) growers tended to move their plantations higher up on the steep slopes of the mountain sides since at all times rain is more prevalent on the mountains. He warned sakau growers against the practice. Cleared slopes could cause severe landslides that could result in loss of life when the rain does return. "The rain will come back," Guard exclaimed.

Andrew Yatilman said that President Mori participated in an informal luncheon with the members of Congress not long after the FSM briefing with Chip Guard. Yatilman said that the President included in his lunch time conversation with Senators a "heads up" on the developing El Niņo situation and that he asked the Senators to be adaptable in case Congressional action for funding is needed in the event of a drought related emergency in the outer islands.

Guard's office has doubled the frequency of monitoring of the El Niņo conditions and he will keep FSM state and national officials informed if they need to step up their efforts.