Shaping a Just World

Adapting to a thirsty future

Caribbean urged to innovate as drought threatens vital water sources.


In July 2023, adventure-seekers at Somerset Falls Water Park in Portland, Jamaica were met with an unexpected sight—the once gushing river had mysteriously vanished. The absence of regular rainfall in this typically wet region has continued into October, and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness recently attributed the country’s year-long drought to climate anomalies that were magnified in October last year. But this year’s drought is not limited to Jamaica. The Caribbean Regional Climate Centre reported low rainfall across the region from January to September 2023, coupled with an unprecedented heatwave expected to persist into 2024. In light of this, Caribbean leaders have recently asserted the critical need for strong finance outcomes at this year’s climate negotiations, including provisions not just for loss and damage, but a renewed focus on the global adaptation goal. For instance, Floyd Green, Jamaica’s Agriculture and Fisheries Minister said his biggest hope is that COP28 will lead to more action in mobilising finance for water accessibility in agriculture and fishing, which continue to suffer the most from persistent drought. »It has taken us too long to move our irrigation network forward to cover more of our arable lands. That is where climate financing should go. I have already challenged the Food and Agriculture Organisation to develop a regional irrigation programme that can generate more finance from the Green Climate Fund,« Green explained.


Complacency prevented better infrastructure

However, while supportive of the need for greater international financial support, Eleanor Jones, a Jamaican environmental specialist, was also highly critical of Caribbean leaders for their complacency. »Many years ago we [Jamaica] used to have very good groundwater supply for Kingston, with half the water stored in aquifers and the other half from surface water, but over the years many of our groundwater sources (wells in the city) have become polluted. We need to build better infrastructure to preserve our water systems,« Jones emphasized.

Precipitation patterns are shifting rapidly around the world. The International Groundwater Assessment Centre (IGRAC) notes that changes in precipitation, including prolonged droughts and heavy rainfall, are negatively affecting both the quality and quantity of groundwater globally. The IGRAC emphasizes that small and shallow aquifers in particular are at higher risk of depletion. This is all too common across the Caribbean.

However, the challenges presented by reliance on groundwater sources in the Caribbean are associated with similar risks inherent in dependence on rivers. In countries like Barbados and Jamaica, the intensified rainfall linked to climate change prevents the absorption of water into groundwater sources. During more frequent heavy rain events, water merely flows across the topsoil without penetrating, occasionally causing the erosion of groundwater sources, as explained by Dr Adrian Cashman, Chair of the Global Water Partnership-Caribbean Technical Committee.

»Rivers are fed by groundwater during droughts, so countries like Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, which rely mostly on rivers, could run into big problems as rainfall patterns change,« Cashman told us. This is because these nations depend on surface water sources replenished by groundwater, but potential problems arise during droughts as water levels decrease. To address these issues, Cashman collaborates with governments within the region to improve strategies for monitoring and protecting water resources. He points out that without improved water storage systems, the Caribbean will be at increased risk of droughts going forward.


Sustainable solutions and innovation

That is why some, like Dr James Hospedales, founder of EarthMedic, is an advocate for rainwater harvesting as a new adaptation approach for Caribbean countries. »We [the Caribbean] need to be more creative in finding ways to maximise water storage. Rainwater harvesting and recycling wastewater can be a part of the response. The region has the expertise, but finance is the problem. I used to live in Windhoek, Namibia, and it’s a desert but almost 30% of water used in the city comes from rainwater harvesting,” said Hospedales. Hospedales also highlighted the importance of exploring other strategies, such as building solar-powered desalination plants or adopting best practice water storage for drier months. He noted that one option for Caribbean countries could be to »build a series of small water catchment systems along the river channels to store water for several weeks during the dry period«. However, » the increased heat and humidity speeds up the breeding cycle for the mosquitoes and the rate of transmission between people also speeds up«, Hospedales explained, creating further challenges for water storage innovations in the future. As a result, he noted that the only viable solutions would require a »multi-stakeholder approach«, where »your public health experts need to speak to your communication specialists, your town planners and your water systems experts. It should be a multi-stakeholder approach«, he said.


@COP28: "Speaking with one voice"

In September this year, Guyana hosted a Caribbean and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change which specifically identified finance for loss and damage and adaptation as critical to any outcome at COP28 this year. In support of this joint resolution, Grenada’s Prime Minister highlighted that in order for the region’s leaders to make inroads on these issues at this year’s climate summit, they needed to »speak with one voice« and »be heard in the hallways of COP28«. As COP28 kicks off, Caribbean leaders will have two weeks to see if that unity is rewarded. With key negotiations on adaptation finance, a brand new »health day« and a global adaptation goal, there will be plenty of opportunities to test just how well their voices are being heard in the hallways in Dubai.



About the author

Kelesha Williams is a multi-award-winning journalist from Jamaica. She currently works at Television Jamaica, Jamaica's leading television station. She is passionate about reporting on the environment, climate crisis and biodiversity. She has had the opportunity to cover international conferences in New York and Canada.


She can now continues, as we are working with Climate Tracker again this year and supporting her to take part in their programme. Kelesha is receiving training from Climate Tracker, reporting on COP28 for us and also attending events organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

The opinions and statements of the guest authors expressed in this article do not reflect the position of  the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


Sarah Zitterbarth
Sarah Zitterbarth
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