Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Desalination: Priorities for research in the Pacific

By Colin A. Scholes

‘Desal’ technology has been in place on Pacific atoll nations since as early as the 1980s, so why did recent droughts invoke a state of emergency? Current reverse osmosis desalination research focuses on the needs of the industrial world, which are far removed from the challenges faced in developing tropical nations.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Recent droughts on the small island nations of Tuvalu and Tokelau have sharply focused the issue of water security in the Pacific. Given the idyllic location, it is hard to imagine Pacific islands suffering droughts, and for the larger volcanic islands such as those of Fiji and Hawaii, this is true. However, communities on flat coral atolls are heavily dependent on potable water extracted from the atolls’ freshwater lens – a body of fresh groundwater that essentially floats on the denser seawater under the islands, and is the result of accumulated rainwater that has percolated down. This is the only potable water reserve for the majority of coral atolls, and in times of severe droughts the freshwater lens shrinks rapidly, resulting in seawater seepage into islanders’ drinking wells.

Prolonged drought on some of the smaller islands caused by the 2010 La Niña weather event meant available potable water reserves were down to two days’ supply, and families were being forced to exist on only two buckets of water per day. Naturally, when Tuvalu declared a state of emergency recently the international community rushed to help, with New Zealand flying in two portable desalination plants to the Pacific island, and the International Red Cross shipping in another two portable desalination plants. These units are based on reverse osmosis membrane technology, which is the current...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Colin Scholes MRACI CChem is at the University of Melbourne. First published in Chemistry in Australia (