Pacific islanders work with nature to combat climate change

Scientists agree that climate change is man-made, but the solutions could lie with nature. Across the Pacific, communities are using natural solutions to protect their vulnerable island states against the worst impacts of climate change.

fiji“Nature-based solutions, or ecosystem-based adaptation, essentially uses ecosystems and biodiversity to build resilience to climate change,” says Herman Timmermans, manager of the  Pacific Ecosystem-based Adaptation to Climate Change (PEBACC) project, funded by the European Union and implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) based in Samoa. “Healthy intact ecosystems have resilience built into them because they are strong and can absorb changes more easily. Weak ecosystems are less able to cope and take longer to recover from extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change.” 

Nature-based solutions were high on the agenda at the Pacific Resilience Meeting Youth Futures in a Resilient Pacific, held at the University of South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, last May. The event, co-organised by the European Union’s flagship climate change initiative Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) and the Pacific Resilient Partnership, showcased inspiring examples of young people and communities working inclusively to improve lives and protect livelihoods as part of the €15 million Scaling Up Pacific Adaptation (SUPA), GCCA+ project funded by the EU.

 “Small Pacific islands are particularly vulnerable and are very exposed to climate change,” says Timmermans. “Atolls are especially at risk as they are flat and there is nowhere for the population to move to higher ground. Cyclones seem to be getting stronger each year, and the infrastructure on many Pacific islands such as power lines, water supplies, housing and schools are often exposed. The seasons are changing - dry spells are getting longer, and many islands don’t have dams or reservoirs to store water. They rely on rivers and small catchment systems which are easily damaged. Bush fires are also increasing.”

Faced with these challenges, several nature-based projects are underway across the Pacific. In Fiji, for example, villagers in Nawaka who live near the Nadi River on the west coast have been taking part in a pilot project to plant vetiver grass along river banks which have been eroded by flooding over several years. 

“We do a lot of work with communities to engage them and get them involved in nature-based solutions,” says Timmermans. “We talk to them about climate change - a lot of them are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of climate change. They’ve heard about it and they know it is an issue, but there’s a lot of misinformation about how it impacts them.”

The conservation, restoration and sustainable management of forests, river basins, coral reefs, mangroves, and wetlands are increasingly seen as a cost-effective alternative to technological solutions to climate change. In Samoa the government has set itself an ambitious target of planting two million trees by 2020, to restore land which has been deforested or degraded and so improve resilience. Farmers and communities are taking the lead both growing the young trees in nurseries and planting them out. 

In Tuvalu, as part of the ‘ridge to reef’ approach, work is underway to tackle the explosion of harmful invasive seaweed caused in part by unpredictable weather patterns and drought. The fast-growing seaweed - which damages both human health and fish stocks - is a major prob-lem in Funafuti lagoon, but scientists hope that by planting vetiver grass along the coastline some of the agricultural nutrient run-off on which the seaweed thrives will be reduced.   

Nature-based solutions are not just good for people, they make strong economic sense as well. One study estimates that globally, intact mangroves prevent US$82 billion in flood dam-age every year. They are also often cheaper than hard infrastructure. “Sea walls may be suc-cessful in combatting coastal erosion in the short term, but they tend not to last very long and they may have adverse environmental impacts and disturb the natural ecosystems,” explains Timmermans. “Nature-based solutions are a no-regrets, good value for money approach - that’s a major consideration in poorer countries.”

For some communities, nature-based solutions may be the only financially viable alternative. On Choiseul in the Solomon Islands, rising sea levels and coastal erosion are major problems but building sea walls or dykes is not an option because of both the cost and lack of resources. Instead, coastal rainforests are protected through a programme partly funded by the EU, in which indigenous landowners voluntarily give up their rights to logging in exchange for the opportunity to create and sell rainforest carbon offsets.

“In addition to coastal protection against storm surges, cyclones and sea level rise, healthy mangroves provide fish, firewood, building materials, they are home to a wealth of biodiversity and they absorb up to four times more carbon than other types of forest,” says Timmermans. 

“Low lying islands are in a really serious predicament, but I am optimistic. Nature-based solutions can help island communities to become more resilient. It’s early days, the uptake is promising and we are learning lessons all the time. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are being put into place but as yet we don’t have the complete picture. But we’re going in the right direction.” 


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