The Slatest

Be Thankful, California. At Least You’re Not Puerto Rico.

Life’s not a beach in Puerto Rico right now.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In California, reservoir levels are plummeting. The state’s precious mountain snowpack is already gone. On Thursday, a huge wildfire in the San Bernadino National Forest grew in size by 500 percent in just four hours. This weekend, a fire near Lake Tahoe exploded to seven times the size of New York City’s Central Park in little more than half a day. Both were visible from space Sunday night. Temperatures are soaring, locking in drought for months if not years to come. “The situation is grim for everyone and everything,” said Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At least it’s not Puerto Rico.

Last week, the Puerto Rican government ramped up drinking water rationing for 200,000 users in the San Juan area, permitting households to draw water only every third day. Rainfall deficits have been building up since 2013, drying up rivers and streams at a record-breaking pace. It’s become one of the worst droughts in the island’s history.

But the situation in Puerto Rico is much more complex than just a lack of rain. Last month, Gov. Alejandro Padilla issued a state of emergency over the drought, which he blamed partly on the island’s struggling economy and the low priority given to water storage by previous governors. Padilla has appealed to Congress for the ability to declare bankruptcy and at least partially eliminate a whopping $73 billion in debt. Water rationing will only worsen the fragile economy, currently mired in an eight-year recession.

John Morales, a Miami-based meteorologist who provides weather forecasting services for the Caribbean, said Puerto Rico’s government could actually be underestimating the seriousness of the problem. The island’s dwindling reservoirs are so silted up from bygone years of intense tropical downpours they’re not able to store as much water as the government thinks they can.

“The capacity of the reservoirs has been severely compromised by sedimentation and lack of maintenance,” Morales told me. What’s worse, he said the island’s “crumbling infrastructure” is producing “huge losses” of water from innumerable leaks.

California’s drought is bad, but not this bad. For one thing, drinking water rationing would be unthinkable in California. In the limited areas of California that have run out of drinking water, domestic wells ran dry due to overuse by neighboring farmers—not due to a lack of total supply. Thanks to unimaginably ambitious public works projects in the past, California still has enough total water supply, it’s just not being allocated efficiently. Due to years of neglect, Puerto Rico is heading into this drought without much wiggle room.

For the Caribbean, water availability is at the center of an uncertain future—made worse by climate change and a precarious economic dependence on tourism. And in the shorter term, with a building El Niño threatening continued dry conditions across Central America and the Caribbean, the next several months don’t provide much hope for a turnaround in terms of rainfall.

There is one possible longer-term solution that’s gaining steam: insurance. The G7 recently highlighted a novel extreme weather-based insurance scheme in the Caribbean as an option to scale up assistance to hundreds of millions of people on the front lines of climate change. Right now, when disasters hit, most of the world’s poor are pretty much on their own. Under the Caribbean scheme, that risk is shared among countries—participants receive cash payouts in bad years to soften the blow of any single extreme event. But the Caribbean plan doesn’t currently cover drought—money can’t buy water if there isn’t any to begin with.