Freshwater Lens, Settlement Patterns, Resource Use and Connectivity in the Marshall Islands

Dirk Spennemann

Abstract

Life on coral atolls can be very precarious. The sand cay islets are low-lying (in the main less than 2m above high water) and small. Only the larger islands (over 500m by 1000m) are suitable for permanent human habitation, as they possess a fragile lens of freshwater floating on top of a saltwater base. It is this lens of groundwater that allows for a variety of plant life, and it is this source of fresh water that allows humans to exist on the island. Environmental disasters, such as typhoons with waves of over 10m washing across an entire islet, can swamp the groundwater lens with saltwater, causing salinisation and thus imperilling human survival.

To reduce the consequences of the environmental disasters, Marshallese chiefs had land holdings scattered over several islands of the same atoll, as well as land rights and, importantly, rights to resources, on other atolls. In times of disaster there were thus other resources to call upon. That level of connectivity allowed the Marshallese society to thrive on the marginal land they inhabited.

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