It is hard to imagine that a small, subtropical island, surrounded by a vast ocean, could be struggling through drought similar to the one currently being endured on the Australian mainland.
But that is the situation Norfolk Island finds itself in, as rainwater tanks run empty in the ongoing dry conditions, leading to a heavy reliance on underground water.
The island, situated in the South Pacific Ocean between New Caledonia and New Zealand, has so far had its driest summer on record with a total rainfall of 12 millimetres, down on the combined average of 173mm for December and January.
The island’s administrator, Eric Hutchinson, has watched the island become increasingly dry over the past two years, and said water security was a critical factor in creating a sustainable future for Norfolk Island.
“Water equals food,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“We do want to see food producers on the island able to expand the range of products that they produce and provide enough food there for the local community as well as [for] visitors.”
As residents’ and businesses’ rainwater tanks run dry, the island’s water carters, like Greg Horrocks, have been busily topping up supplies with treated bore water.
While he has an idea about how much water is left in his bore, Mr Horrocks said he was uncertain about how much was left in groundwater stores as there was no regulated monitoring of bores.
“The concern is the fact that it’s been so many years in a row where we’ve been pumping steadily and virtually not having a break through winter — it’s just constant,” Mr Horrocks said.
“I’m not too sure what’s going to happen [to bore stores] in another six months’ time if we don’t get good rain.”
‘Incredible influx of dry years’
According to Bureau of Meteorology Norfolk Island station officer, Adam Jauczius, there is no relief in sight.
Mr Jauczius assessed the island’s rainfall data, which dates back to 1890, and said there had been an “incredible influx of dry years” over the past 40 years.
The driest year on record was in 2017 with a total rainfall of 778mm — down on the average of 1,200mm.
“For Norfolk Island, this may seem high, but anything below 900mm is considered to be pretty much a drought,” Mr Jauczius said.
The tiny haven has no reticulated water system, no rivers or major dams, and it relies solely on rainwater and bores for its water supply.
The Commonwealth and the Norfolk Island Regional Council manage six bores which supply the island’s fire and emergency services, hospital, airport, electricity, waste management, national park, school, and the World Heritage-listed Kingston area.
There are 248 bores registered with the local council.
Water restrictions cannot be enforced on the island because water is mostly privatised through the use of water tanks, meaning the local council can only make recommendations for residents and visitors to conserve water.
The council has recommended placing buckets in showers to collect excess water as well as diverting grey water from washing machines to water gardens.
For those who use private bores for drinking water, the council advised boiling the water or installing a UV system to kill harmful bacteria.
Long-time resident Archie Bigg regularly trucks a load of water to top up his stores at home from what appears to be a random pipe jutting out from the side of a small ridge.
The structure connects back to a spring that provides non-potable water, which Archie has pumped into his tank installed in the tray of his car, known as a Norfolk Wheelbarrow.
“It’s very handy because it means I don’t have to use our rainwater because this is not drinkable water — it’s great for the garden and for the animals,” Mr Bigg said.
Late last month the council locked all of these watering points, restricting access to farmers for watering stock only.
Farmers feeling the heat
In the island’s small agriculture industry, the lack of rainfall is taking its toll on farmers Karen Poacher and Peter Christian-Bailey.
Mr Christian-Bailey and Ms Poacher are the island’s only commercial dairy farmers and are producing half the milk they usually do.
“We do get dry periods, we do budget for dry times over summer but this period is particularly dry,” Mr Christian-Bailey said.
“We’re coping but just, so hopefully there’s rain just around the corner.”
He said he was also losing hungry stock when they ventured over cliffs in a desperate pursuit for green pastures.
“What happens when it’s dry is that the cows tend to encroach and because we’re right on the cliff top here they do encroach and we have lost cows in the past.”
Council and administration form working group
The island’s dire water situation has sparked action from Mr Hutchinson and the regional council and resulted in the formation of a working group to tackle water security.
“It is imperative that the island develops medium and longer-term water strategies to ensure the sustainability of the island,” Mr Hutchinson said.
He said short-term measures were needed to respond to the depleting water stores, which he likened to the effects of a natural disaster.
Mr Hutchinson asked the Emergency Management Norfolk Island Committee to focus on the current water circumstances in the same way it would consider natural disasters.
The council has also met to discuss strategies to deal with the drought.
“The island is in the grip of a drought, the worst in many years according to many people,” Mayor Robin Adams said.
“Creeks and bores are drying up and the water table is going down rapidly.”
Cr Adams said during the meeting the council considered ideas to encourage smarter water use including subsidising the installation of water tanks and removing the waste management levy on imported water tanks.
But Mr Jauczius said more studies were needed to predict how climate change will affect the island long-term.
“The general trend is indicating that we are getting a declining rainfall,” he said.
“We need to do more research and not just take a stab in the dark and say that it’s probably associated with the conditions that we are seeing in the south-east of Australia.”
For Mr Horrocks, the prospect of the island running out of water is unimaginable. He has been looking to the skies hoping for good rain soon.
“I really don’t know what would happen if we ran out of water,” he said.
“I’d imagine a lot of the tourist industry and a lot of the restaurants and all of that would just have to close down, they can’t operate without water.”
Not the only island in drought
Neighbouring Lord Howe Island is 890km south-west of Norfolk Island and has also been struggling under drought conditions.
In 2018 Lord Howe Island endured its driest year in 132 years, receiving about 500mm less rainfall than the average.
The territory’s statutory authority, The Lord Howe Island Board, previously had to ship water in from Port Macquarie, 600km west of the island, to get through the drought.
The board’s chief executive, Peter Adams, said he hoped that the island would not have to bring water in on the fortnightly ship.
“It’s certainly a difficult exercise for it to bring all that water as well when it’s usually laden with all of the materials and goods that the island requires,” Mr Adams said.
“So bringing that over is not only a big exercise, it’s an expensive exercise.”