Global Insights | Perspectives

I Can Be Adaptable No Matter What

A Woman's View on Climate Change in the Pacific

BY JOANNA BENN

Coastal Erosion in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia.
Coastal Erosion in Chuuk Coastal Erosion in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. © TNC

‘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 3 days to discuss climate change, unleashing a rainbow of ideas, thoughts and stories.

It was both life-affirming and alarming.

Trailblazers, leaders and conveners 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.

Portrait of Julie Tellei
Julie Tellei "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." © Joanna Benn/TNC

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.

Gender and Climate Change Amplifying women's voices

Voices of Gender and Climate Change in the Pacific

The Micronesia Program is building the capacity of Pacific Island women to adapt to climate change.

Learn more

When Did Food Become so Unpredictable?

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

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

Portrait of Mae Burton Adams
Mae Burton Adams "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." © Heather Kuhlken

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 are perhaps 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,” says Mae Bruton Adams, Program Manager for The Conservancy’s Micronesia program. “Today, rice and bread has replaced the main staple foods. Obesity and non-communicable diseases are other huge issues.”

Taro growing in rice bags
Taro Growing in rice bags © TNC

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 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 on the Island of 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 it 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 grow.

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.

Cut taro
Taro Cut taro on the ground © Joanna Benn/TNC

Atolls of the Pacific are also significantly impacted during times of drought. The Marshalls, for example, have had cycles of droughts followed by saltwater intrusion. Without water, schools close and life grinds to a halt.

“With climate change, saltwater has come into the river system. Our fresh water has been inundated with seawater. We are now digging water wells. Some of the houses now also have installed rainwater tanks. Our freshwater is no longer fresh. It’s a problem,” says Susuan Pukuop, who practices atoll farming in Manus, Papua New Guinea (PNG).

On the Marshall Islands, some people are looking to restore cement tanks used by the Japanese during the Second World War. On Yap, communities have replanted young trees, covering the taro plants with leaves and weeds to help them stay cool, and moving plants to shady areas. In times of drought in PNG, people are said to rely on relationships with their clan for help.

Yet sometimes a relatively small grant can make a big difference. On the Island of Chuuk, a $5,000 grant allowed people to clean up a stream, reinforce the edges with concrete to protect taro patches, and then add more concrete and plant pineapple trees to reduce erosion. Planting palm-like pandanus trees near the shorelines and wells also helps retain water and the soil. Small actions can be immensely powerful and add up to help stave off the effects of climate change, at least in the short-term.

Violence Runs Deep

Climate change is also putting women at risk in even more direct ways. A growing number of women’s organizations are beginning to draw connections to climate change and violence in their work, says Juliana Valez of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a global network of over 100 women’s organizations working on climate change and women’s issues.

‘When water is short, violence increases. Young girls must travel to fetch water and can get attacked. Women are the main users of water. We need women to be involved from the beginning of planning because they usually maintain the catchment area,’ says Katy from the Marshall Islands.

According to UN Women, global evidence shows that sexual and gender-based violence increases during and after disasters. In the Pacific, studies conducted in six Pacific Island countries and territories focused on those women impacted by violence. Of the women surveyed, 60–80% had experienced forms of physical or sexual violence by partners or others.

Portrait of Kenye Livae
Kenye Livae "Women in the field that I work with, they're doing whatever they can do to cope with the problems we have because of the climate changes." © Heather Kuhlken

The UN categorically states that the effects of climate change exacerbate existing gender and social inequalities, often resulting in more negative impacts for vulnerable groups, including women, children, the elderly, migrants and people with disabilities. And as climate change increases the frequency and severity of disasters, the risks and challenges associated will also heighten.

In addition to the negative impacts on individual women and girls, families and communities, such violence poses significant challenges to the achievement of future sustainable development. Women, for example, are often expected to take care of domestic tasks like gathering water or firewood. In cases of drought, this might mean they have to walk many miles further to find these resources, exposing them to violence and the harsh elements, but also limiting their free time to pursue other empowering activities, like getting an education or starting a small business.

“Women in the field that I work with, they're doing whatever they can do to cope with the problems we have because of the climate changes. Some of the things that they are trying to do is that they have water catchment to catch whenever there is rain, to preserve the water that they can use throughout the days,” said Kenye Livae, a community leader from Kosrae.

Coastal erosion in Chuuk
Coastal Erosion in Chuuk © TNC

Even the Dead are Not Safe

The effects of climate change and sea-level rise have consequences for every stage of life.

As shorelines move inward due to sea-level rise, the effects can be gruesome and unexpected. Some communities are having to tackle the unpleasant task of exhuming and relocating graves where flooding and coastal erosion threaten cemeteries.

At its most horrific, communities from all over the Pacific have suffered when extreme high tides have pulled coffins from the ground and floated them out to sea. People have literally chased the dead.

“In the Pacific, our land grounds us— and is home. Our ancestors and the final resting place also connects us to our land. When we are forced to leave, we have not roots. When our ancestors are removed from their resting place, they too become disconnected from home,” said one workshop participant.

For Islanders living on small atolls where sea waves have enveloped shores or forcing them to leave their homes, such action brings the feeling that they’ll be abandoning their ancestors, including those buried in cemeteries.

Portrait of Bertha Reyuw
Bertha Reyuw “Our ancestors also faced storms, droughts and extreme rains, which threatened important food sources.” © Heather Kuhlken

Learning from the Old Ways

Faced with such challenges, how do we focus on the positives of the old ways and help inform the present?

Pacific Islanders have adapted to extreme events for thousands of years and many are looking back at traditional methods of farming, food preservation, and land-use based on a deep understanding of resilience to extreme events.

“Our ancestors also faced storms, droughts and extreme rains, which threatened important food sources. However, many traditional farming and gardening methods were designed specifically to prevent damage to crops during these events. We would do this by planting crops among trees to reduce sunlight, strong winds, and rain,” said Bertha Reyuw from the Yap Community Action Program.

She added, “We also knew which crops could survive longer periods of drought, sun, rain—or even saltwater. And Pacific Islanders had many ways to preserve food in times of abundance.”

Portrait of Susuan Pukuop
Susuan Pukuop "I heard how people are preserving their taro and breadfruit so I can help my community learn this, because we also grow taro and breadfruit in our place.” © Heather Kuhlken

The workshop offered the chance for women from different islands to share some of this wisdom. “I learned something today, I heard how the Yap people are preserving their taro. I also heard about how Marshall Islanders are preserving breadfruit so I can help my community learn this, because we also grow taro and breadfruit in our place,” said Susuan Pukuop from Papau New Guinea.

“So for us women, we are trying different things. Some of us have been looking at ways to grow crops, so instead of having gardens for taro, cassava and yams we have been using recycled rice bags. That way they don't have to use a lot of land space,” says Barbara Masike, Papua New Guinea Program Director, The Nature Conservancy.

“We want a collective approach to issues, so we need to sit together and listen to each other. It is an opportunity to see the similarities we have and learn from our differences. It brings us together when we have a common issue, it makes us stronger,” says Kathryn Relang, Executive Director Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI)

In some places, though, change is happening so quickly, people need the fastest, most expedient solution for survival.

“One adaptation strategy is to marry someone on high land,” said one participant.

Barbara Masike Papua New Guinea Program Director, The Nature Conservancy

Not Vulnerable in Spirit

Climate change is a threat multiplier—it usually makes bad things worse. But while the Pacific may be vulnerable due to geography, it would be a mistake to assume it is vulnerable in attitude. As these women demonstrate, innovation and responsiveness is at the front of their efforts.

Wide shot of taro plants
Taro Plants A wide shot of taro plants © Berna Gorong

“In Yap, our taro patches are getting inundated with saltwater with the sea levels rising. Our coastal taro patches have been impacted. Now we take the taro patches to higher grounds. In the areas we’re replanting them [we are also planting] Nipa palm, which we use for thatch roofing for our traditional houses,” said Bernadette from Yap.

Many families are also working to combat coastal erosion, too, says Betty Sigrah from Kosrae, Capacity-Building Program Manager for the Micronesia Conservation Trust, through “coastal revegetation projects with tree planting using native plants to help retain the soil.”

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.

Portrait of Kiki Stinnett
KiKi Stinnett “It is important for women to come together and share and exchange ideas and challenges we face through climate change.” © Heather Kuhlken

“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.

This project is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag.

To learn more about The Nature Conservancy's work in Micronesia, click here