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  • By Jo Benn, Nature Conservancy

“I can be adaptable no matter what.” A woman’s view on climate change in the Pacific

‘Iakwe’ in Marshallese.

Meaning: "Hello," "I love you," and "You are a rainbow."

The Nature Conservancy’s Micronesia Program brought women to Palau from Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk, Yap, Palau, The Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea for three days to discuss climate change, unleashing a rainbow of ideas, thoughts and stories.

It was both life-affirming and alarming.

Trailblazers, leaders and conveners in the Pacific are working to help communities adapt to the present-day realities of water insecurity, food shortage and climate-induced hardships.

In islands across the Pacific, no one has the luxury of denying the existence of climate change. People are living it. Have been living it. And they are desperately trying to adapt to it.

The low-lying vulnerable areas of Micronesia and Melanesia are bearing a disproportionate share of climate change impacts, despite emitting few of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the changing weather patterns, sea-level rise and loss of land that are changing their reality.

Where do you go when there is no higher land than the sea’s edge? What about when you look out at the horizon and see nothing but the vast expanse of sea? How vulnerable would you feel knowing that the rising ocean could one day engulf your home?

The burdens of climate change do not always fall equitably, either. So often it is women who bear the brunt of keeping food on the table, and the children clean and safe in this face of changing circumstances. But women in the Pacific are helping to lead the efforts to adapt, too.

“You have a sphere of influence, whatever station you have in life. Never forget that. Women care for the land, women care for resources, women are the seeds, women are the caretakers. Woman are born to responsibility, and the Pacific is speaking to the world,” says Julie Tellei, a traditional leader in Palau.

When Did Food Become so Unpredictable?

Home, roots, food and family. These words were constantly repeated over the course of three days. These words take on extra significance, because climate change threatens them all.

Shorelines are moving landward, saltwater intrusion is making groundwater undrinkable and food is scarce.

And where seasonal planting was once the norm, now the weather is unpredictable. In some places, there is more rainfall, more flooding and pests. Excess rainfall also increases water-borne illnesses, especially in children. And with many fisheries less productive than in the past—either due to coral bleaching and die off, sedimentation, pollution or overfishing—traditional foods are in decline. Some are questioning if a rise in non- communicable diseases such as diabetes is exacerbated by climate change.

Take the starchy round breadfruit and root vegetable taro that grow on many of the islands—these core diet staples also have high cultural value and are traditionally significant.

The breadfruit harvests, however, have become unpredictable, threatening traditional ways of managing food through times of drought. The compounded effects have been unexpected and insidious.

“Children’s diets are being altered because they are not eating their traditional foods. Some of it is due to seasonal changes, some due to changes in culture. Studies have shown that islanders who ate only their traditional foods such as taro, and did not include wheat or rice products did not suffer from tooth decay,” said Mae Bruton Adams, Program Manager for The Conservancy’s Micronesia program. “Today, rice and bread have replaced the main staple foods. Obesity and non-communicable diseases are other huge issues.”

But as is often the case, necessity is the mother of invention. If harvests are unpredictable, preservation of what you can grow and pick is even more important. This has led to the creation of new types of flour and new drying techniques for fresh food. This is also part of a movement to grow and eat more local food.

Islanders are also finding a way to plant more of the beloved taro. Unfortunately, these can no longer be planted in familiar plots of land and are being moved inland away from saltwater intrusion and coastlines vulnerable to flooding. In Palau, new hybrid varieties of taro are being planted that are more robust and salt-resistant. In addition, taro patches are natural sediment catchments and can help control water run-off.

In some places, such as Kosrae, the government gave out fruit and vegetable seeds to grow in local gardens. Yet, when the floods come, gardens are often destroyed by saltwater and flooding. And the impetus to replant again is often lost.

In turn, farmers in multiple places are working to improve soil health through organic farming, planting raised gardens to avoid salty soil, replanting breadfruit trees, and trying out more climate-smart crops, which are hardier and more salt-resistant than previous ones. And so, resistance and innovation grows.

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Climate change is drying up predictable water sources, contaminating groundwater through saltwater intrusion, and changing rainfall patterns, leading to more intense droughts and floods. Increased flooding and storms can also lead to contamination of freshwater sources through increased sediments and pollution.

Outer islands often have limited water sources and must rely on water tanks, deep wells or bottled water from adjacent islands. People rely heavily on ground water when regular water sources dry up. However, this needs to be done with care, as pumping too much ground water can in some cases pierce the water lens, causing salt water to intrude.

This is not just about the Pacific. Global temperatures have hit record highs the past three years in a row. The problems already being experienced by the Pacific islands should act as a warning for the rest of the world as more than a billion people live in low-lying coastal regions.

Pacific Island leaders have been instrumental in securing a global commitment to address climate change, and communities across the region are testing and implementing innovative strategies to address climate change as it hits them on their doorsteps.

These women who face social, economic and political barriers may have limited opportunities to stop climate change. However, they are at the forefront of climate action, acting as effective agents of change and sharing stories of resilience, survival and hope.

“It is important for women to come together and share and exchange ideas and challenges we face through climate change. It is a great opportunity for us to dialogue about how we can make things better on the islands,” says Kiki Stinnett of the Chuuk Women’s Council. “There is so much we can learn from each other. We’re so unique in our different ways, yet we have so much in common in our island settings.”

They have a voice—an essential one.

Jo Benn has worked in communications surrounding environmental issues for 15 years. She is currently with the Nature Conservancy, based in London.

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