Palau islanders band together to protect threatened water supply

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 April 2012 12:37 GMT
Innovative community alliance is proving to be a model for dealing with climate pressures and other water threats in the region

HANOI (AlertNet) – A combination of development, improper land use and increasingly severe weather patterns are threatening water sources in the Micronesian island of Palau – but a community alliance is working to thwart the challenges.

Palau’s 20,000 inhabitants rely on fresh water from rivers and streams on the biggest island, Babeldaob, for their daily needs and to irrigate farms of taro, a staple food. They also depend heavily on the island’s trees and other vegetation, and on its marine resources.

But construction of a 50-mile-long ring road on the island between 1994 and 2006 led to massive land clearing and has led to erosion and sediment runoff, damaging the island’s freshwater sources. 

Worsening climate-linked extreme weather is also adding to the island’s problems.

"What we're seeing in Palau at the moment is that the average rainfall is pretty much the same. It's the intensity and frequency that's really causing a lot of the problems,” said Umiich Fleming Sengebau, deputy director in Palau for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based conservation organization.

The changes include more intense storms at the tail end of Southeast Asia’s monsoon season.

"With that intensity of storm activity, we're having problems like landslides and damage to the road and to construction. We're also having saltwater intrusion from sea level rise and this is affecting taro farms,” he told the audience on Thursday at the 6th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change.

Palau is no stranger to a changing climate worries. In 1988, a strong El Nino phenomenon, which can bring ocean warming, led to bleaching of Palau’s famed corals, with some species and reefs up to 90 percent affected.

A COMMUNITY ALLIANCE TO THE RESCUE

Instead of waiting for the government to do something about all the problems, community leaders in Babeldaob set up the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance (BWA) at the end of 2006, with The Nature Conservancy’s help, to address sedimentation and drought and to share information and technical assistance with other Micronesian islands.

The venture is heavily focused on ensuring food security, as sedimentation problems can make it impossible to continue planting taro, Sengebau said.

Since its formation, the alliance has identified four new land areas that are important sources of water, completed community conservation and management plans, and signed ‘Master Cooperative Agreements’ between several states on Babeldaob, The agreements identify collective conservation goals and include incentives for progress toward these goals.

"What has come out of the forum is that we are now addressing bigger issues like land use policy and also getting the communities to practice some of their traditional methods of restoring their watersheds,” Sengebau said.

Among the changes are efforts to adopt improved farming practices, curb deforestation and ensure development projects do not threaten important ecosystems.

‘WHO’ IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ‘WHAT’

The community alliance model is now being copied across the region. Other islands today have similar alliances and there is talk of a possible Micronesia Watershed Alliance, Sengebau said. 

The Babeldaob alliance is also looking at innovative strategies to expand their work. One is creating a water fund, a pioneering payment for ecosystem services scheme where utility companies would pay communities living in watersheds to keep the watersheds clean. The effort would save the water company money it would normally spend to produce electricity from water laden with heavy sedimentation.

One important lesson learned in the project is how crucial it is to identify key leaders, Sengebau said.

“In Palau and many other islands, the messenger is more important than the message,” he said. “(The people) don't ask what you'll be talking about, they ask who'll be there."

An advantage in small communities is that leaders are also community members.

The work in Palau may turn out to be useful to replicate even in larger countries, Sengebau said.

“There is some real cutting-edge, innovative work that's currently being done by many of the small island states and it would be nice to bring some of those ideas to bear in many of the bigger countries,” he added. 

 

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