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  • By Joyce McClure

Climate swings threaten Yap with malnutrition

Dr. Murukesan Krishnapillai

Colonia — Climate change is in the headlines every day as one of the most important issues for every nation on earth. But there is another related issue that is just as challenging in Yap – climate versatility.

“Plants like a humid environment” said Dr. Murukesan Krishnapillai, Agronomy Researcher with FSM College of Micronesia’s Cooperative Research and Extension program, “but Yap has experienced severe droughts in recent years.” At other times, it rains heavily for several days. Weather extremes like these, combined with an increase in the frequency of typhoons, tropical cyclones and other dramatic storm surges, devastate the islands and leave behind damaged or destroyed infrastructures. As a result, it becomes more difficult to grow crops and livestock.

COM-FSM’s Dr. Murukesan Krishnapillai training the atoll community members in soil management. PACAM

That’s the challenge of food security, which means having consistent access to enough affordable, nutritious food to sustain the population. Problems with food security are far from unique to Yap and its sister islands throughout Micronesia as evidenced by the United Nation’s ten development goals that place “zero hunger” by the year 2030 second only to the elimination of poverty.

But the Pacific region is going backward. Multiple forms of malnutrition are on the rise in most of its countries.

Australian geoscientist John Connell in his 2015 report titled “Food Security in the Island Pacific: Is Micronesia As Far Away As Ever?” states, “Food security in the Pacific, especially Micronesia, has worsened in the past half century.” As agriculture, fishing and local food production have declined, he writes, eating habits “have incorporated more processed and imported foods because of prestige, accessibility, cost and convenience.”

One look at the shelves in local grocery and convenience stores across the island is proof of the increase in the local diet of canned meats, rice, ramen noodles and other imported processed foods. Diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity are among the non-communicable diseases that have risen along with the influx of processed foods that contain high amounts of fat, salt, sugar and preservatives. NCDs have put the islands at the top of the chart in the world for these illnesses.

Dr. Muru, as he is known to everyone, and his CRE colleagues on the COM-FSM campuses in Pohnpei, Chuuk and Kosrae are working hard to offset that deadly trend by focusing their work on aquaculture, family, youth and communities, childhood obesity, climate change, food safety, and global food security and hunger.

In stark terms, Micronesia “is at risk of starvation as the rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns take their toll on farmers' crops,” Dr. Muru wrote in a recent post on USAID’s ClimateLinks blog. Entire atoll communities are being forced to leave their homes on Yap’s outer islands as they “become more and more inhospitable with a changing climate,” he noted. Faced with “the impacts of climate variability and change” including “more intense disasters, more intense and longer droughts that make access to clean water more difficult, saltwater intrusion that makes subsistence crop production more challenging, and increased coastal erosion and more frequent flooding,” he observed, the work is daunting.

With the influx of families moving to the main island from the neighboring islands in recent years, Yap’s state government set aside an area for their settlement. But the land was low in nutrients with high acidity. Thanks to a USAID Pacific-American Climate Fund grant, the area has seen a significant turnaround. Communities participating in CRE’s Climate Adaptive Agriculture and Resilience project engage in three simultaneous strategies over a period of three years that result in increased household and community resilience: Soil Management, Water Conservation and Management and Livelihood Management.

Dr. Muru and his team, which includes COM-FSM students studying in the Agriculture and Natural Resource program have trained 120 households in “soil management, climate-smart gardening and water harvesting techniques to build their resilience to climate change impacts,” he said. The approximately 800 people who have migrated to the main island are now growing good quality vegetables and selling them to local restaurants as well as in stores throughout the island. “More importantly,” Dr. Muru added, “the atoll communities can now access nutritious and reliable food sources on Yap.”

Training in composting, liming and mulching have helped improve the soil in the community. Every day small composting machines are sent to the communities from CRE to collect and grind up compostable natural waste for processing into soil and mulch. Other training has centered on “small-plot intensive farming, micro-gardening, container home-gardening, agroforestry and integrated farming,” according to Dr. Muru.

The grant funds were also used to provide portable rainwater harvest bags for residents of the settlement that collect and store up to 350 gallons of water, enough for daily household and gardening use.

Another program, Adaptive Community Transformation on Yap, was launched in March 2017 by Catholic Relief Services in partnership with CRE, the Yap State Disaster Coordinating Officer, municipal chiefs, village representatives and other community members. The program is focusing on developing Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation plans for eleven communities throughout the state with the goal to increase the capacity of at-risk communities to prepare for and recover from typhoons and drought.

Between October 2017 and November 2018, approximately 600 residents participated in community risk assessments and more than 485 attended planning workshops. Eight municipalities and outer island settlements have organized Disaster Risk Management Task Forces with another three due to be finalized by the end of 2018.

Additionally, the CRS/CRE partnership supports “smallholder farmers to enhance their current agricultural strategies with technical trainings and resources,” according to Tara McCaw, CRS program manager in Yap. Eligible farmers also receive vouchers to buy supplies like seeds, manure and trellising rope from local suppliers. More than 118 farmers have used the vouchers to compost and grow vegetables and traditional crops.

“But sustaining this type of project long term is a struggle,” Dr. Muru said. “The farmers need money for seeds and fertilizer.”

To that end, learning how to market and sell their harvests to local restaurants, stores and caterers is included in the training for local producers. They are also called on regularly to provide produce for large events like the 2018 Micro Games that took place in Yap this past summer. Among the crops are Chinese cabbage, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, long beans, okra, cucumbers, scallions and pumpkins, as well as traditional vegetables and fruits that range from bananas and coconuts to breadfruit, passion fruit, pineapples, taro and papayas. The main grocery store on the island, YCA, has set aside an area where in-season produce is sold, and other small green markets also offer a variety of fresh-picked items.

In the meantime, Dr. Muru continues to work with his colleagues to bring in additional grants to sustain their research and provide necessary support to local farmers. In January 2019, a grant of $1 million funded by the Italian Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea under the Italy-Pacific SIDS Climate Cooperation Program will help improve water availability.

But the problem cannot be solved alone. It requires entire communities from parents and teachers to traditional and elected leaders, business owners, health providers and church authorities to work together and mobilize the society.

Giving a visitor a tour through the demonstration garden surrounding the CRE office, pointing out and explaining the seedlings and plants and how they must be self-pollinating due to the lack of bees on the island, Dr. Muru’s passion and enthusiasm for the work CRE is doing, and the farmers and gardeners of Yap, are still fresh after 17 years of living and working in his adopted island home despite the challenges that lie ahead in a changing world.

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