Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
Karen Stewart, the United States’ newest ambassador to the Marshall Islands, flew to Kwajalein Atoll this week to meet local RMI leaders and the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Command team. During a three-day visit away from the U.S. embassy in Majuro, Stewart joined Matthew Mathews, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visiting from his post in Washington, D.C. Together, they received briefings on sweeping development projects slated for Ebeye and met with the men and women driving the space and missile missions of the Reagan Test Site and the garrison which houses it.
During a Sept. 7 meeting on Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll Sen. David Paul, a resident and native of Ebeye, highlighted for Stewart and Matthews the litany of challenges facing the island population of 12,000. The newcomer to senatorial office explained plans to incubate bold advancements to counter issues relating to health, education and the community’s aging infrastructure.
Doubling as chairman of the board of the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority, Paul spoke to the visitors at length about the high-profile $19 million overhaul of the community’s water, sewage and sanitation distribution system. Funded by the United States, Australia and the Asian Development Bank, contractors broke ground on the project in April 2015 and are scheduled to finish in four years.
In the meantime, a new reverse osmosis system should be built and switched on early next year, Paul said. Fed by water pumped up from the islet’s freshwater lens, the new station will be able to produce 500,000 gallons of potable water every 24 hours, a sizeable increase from the current station’s capacity of 180,000 gallons per day. The station’s ribbon cutting planned for February should be a welcome relief for Ebeye residents, all of whom this year experienced, in no small measure, the effects of extreme drought during one of the strongest El Niño systems on record.
While the threat of climate change was a point of discussion during the group’s talks, Paul emphasized the importance of renewable energy to the future of Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll and the greater Marshall Islands. Working with U.S. solar power system manufacturer SolarCity, Paul explained the goal of shifting 40 percent of the island’s electricity consumption to solar energy in coming years. The move, funded by grants and low-interest financing from the World Bank and other international organizations, could equate to serious fuel savings, which could fuel other projects, he said.
“Depending on the cost of fuel, we’re talking about $1.2 million to $1.6 million [in savings] a year,” he told Stewart and Matthews. “These are the initiatives that we are trying take ourselves so that we can continue to reduce our costs.”
With respect to the Marshall Islands’ ongoing clamor for a reduction of greenhouse emissions, a large-scale conversion to solar energy would also send out important political signals to the international community, Paul said.
The fact that the community plans to generate electricity the old fashioned way—going to the extent of purchasing new diesel generators—should not call into question his government’s dedication to the effort, Paul said.
“What we want is stability,” he told the visitors. “When we bring in new generators, the world is going to look and [say], ‘Hey, you guys are telling us to reduce our emittance on CO2, but then you guys are investing in conventional technologies for electricity.’ What we’re doing is telling them, ‘Hey, we still need have power, right? But at least we’re making the effort to reduce our … global emissions to zero percent.’”
Paul’s and his staff’s plans for meeting these development goals and further goals down the road could all go by the wayside should they prove unable to modernize the system by which land lease agreements are created on Ebeye and the other causeway communities. In order to build anything, ranging from a private home to a public medical clinic or a public sewer pipeline running along a neighborhood street, mortgagors, investors and project managers must currently work their way through a complicated system with individual landowners. It’s an unorganized an ineffective land tenure system that inhibits investment security over the long haul—and can even drive away some investment opportunities, Paul told the group. The World Bank, for instance, has allocated $45 million for the construction of coastal protection measures on Ebeye and all the way up the causeway to Ninji, Paul said; however no funds will be release until the senator and his team can provide legal proof that those investments will be secure over the long term.
The implementation of what Paul described as a master lease plan could resolve the problem, he told Stewart and Matthews.
He used private home construction as an example.
“If you look at most of the houses on Ebeye, they’re considered makeshift,” the senator explained. “Because, you know, it really boils down to economic security, right? If you don’t have a valid lease, there’s really no collateral, no security for that mortgage that you’re taking out. So if you’re taking out $100,000 mortgage to build a house and there’s no land security. You have to be able to comfortably take that out, and no bank will lend that money to you. So with this lease in place, we’ll facilitate all of that.”
In other words, the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority would step in and serve as a “one stop shop,” Paul said.
“We would be the one to give you that permission. And then you can take it to the bank, and the bank would actually commission that financing.”
The plan is ambitious. And while officials view it as a necessity for long-term development in the local island communities, it could take 10-15 years to fully implement, the senator said.
After their meetings with Paul, Stewart and Matthews took the opportunity Wednesday to tour Ebeye’s current reverse osmosis station, power plant, hospital and the causeway before flying north to visit the people of Enniburr.
Also part of their stay on the atoll were briefings with Reagan Test Site staff members’ about their missions in orbital tracking, foreign launch intelligence and weapons testing for the Army, the Air Force and Department of Defense clients. Matthews flew to the Federated States of Micronesia Thursday, continuing his tour of Micronesia, and Stewart returned to Majuro the following day.