Uniting for Freshwater Across the Pacific

UPDATE: Our warmest congratulations to Umiich Sengebau, who was recently sworn in as Palau's Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism!

Minister Sengebau is the youngest Government Minister ever in Palau, and we're proud to say we knew him when. Best of luck to the Minister as he continues his quest to protect Palau's natural resources!

You might think that water scarcity isn’t a big deal for the Pacific islands. After all, they’re islands: by definition, they're surrounded by water. 

Nonetheless, finding freshwater in the middle of an ocean isn’t as easy as it sounds. For example, here in Palau — a Micronesian nation consisting of more than 300 islands — even the crocodiles are of the saltwater variety.  

The island of Babeldaob is Palau’s biggest and best source for freshwater. Containing Palau’s only two freshwater lakes — Lake Ngardok and Ngerkall Pond as well as 16 watersheds, Babeldaob provides most of the drinking water for a vast majority of Palau’s people. But recent development projects have damaged the watershed and strained Palau’s already-scarce resources. 

Enter the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance (BWA), which The Nature Conservancy helped launch by reapplying lessons learned after surmounting similar problems in Hawaii. A grassroots conservation network of Babeldaob communities, the Alliance has been protecting and restoring the freshwater resources of Palau through unprecedented local collaboration — and the Conservancy and partners are helping to spread its methods across Micronesia.

“The alliance exponentially expands Babeldaob communities’ abilities to protect their forested uplands, which are a major source of water,” says Collin Joseph, the Speaker of the Melekeok state legislature on Babeldaob. “The alliance makes for efficient use of resources and staff, and it allows for greater streamlining in applying for technical and financial assistance."

From Reefs to Ridges

Palau has become known as a diving destination; it’s what lies beneath, rather than above, the ocean’s surface that attracts tourists from all over the globe. But Babeldaob — the largest Palauan island, at 188 square miles — is the most terrestrially biodiverse Island in the entire Micronesia region. It contains 10 of Palau’s 16 states, and a quarter of the island’s plants can’t be found outside of Palau.

Those plants came under threat in 1994, when workers began construction on a 50-mile-long ring road around the island. The road, which was finished in 2006, connected Babeldaob’s far-flung settlements and increased economic opportunities for the people of Palau. But there was also collateral damage: massive land clearing created a large amount of sediment runoff, damaging the island’s freshwater sources. 

Studies by the Palau International Coral Reef Center in 2003 revealed that sedimentation was also having an impact on nearshore coral reefs, which play a vital role in the livelihoods of many Palauans. Suddenly, it became clear that the conservationists looking to protect Palau’s marine ecosystems would have to redouble their efforts on land. 

“Nurturing a Way of Life”

After the 2003 findings, a group of young conservationists launched a campaign to increase awareness in Babeldaob of sedimentation’s impacts. One of those conservationists was Umiich Sengebau, the Conservancy’s deputy director of conservation in Palau. 

Sengebau set out to establish a grassroots movement involving all of Babeldaob’s communities. He knew that earning the trust and respect of local community leaders would take time, and he called on Noah Idechong — a Goldman fellow who has led modern efforts in Palau to emphasize conservation in the face of increasing development — to help him win support from Babeldaob’s people. 

With financial assistance from the Wallis Foundation, Sengebau brought key members of Babeldaob communities — including traditional and elected leaders — to Hawaii. There, they were introduced to the watershed partnerships that Conservancy staff had spent decades cultivating. The Palauans on this trip became the key messengers in helping to develop Babeldaob’s watershed alliance.

Finally, on December 16, 2006, the BWA was established. “This is more than protecting a valuable resource,” Paramount Chief Reklai Bao Ngirmang said upon the establishment of the BWA. “This is about preserving and nurturing a way of life of the Palauan people.” 

Flowing Forward

The BWA is still a young movement, but it’s already accomplished some remarkable things: 

  • Four new terrestrial protected areas spanning more than 5,000 acres have been created and endorsed by local municipal governments. 
  • Eight Babeldaob communities have completed Conservation Action Plans that commit them to sustaining the Babeldaob watershed. 
  • Two communities have already completed sustainable management plans, which — once reviewed and approved — will provide long-term guidance for local conservation activities. Four more are currently being drafted. 

Currently, nine out of Babeldaob’s 10 states have signed on to the BWA, and there’s hope that all 10 will soon be involved. In the meantime, communities from all over the island are regularly meeting to discuss watershed conservation and are sharing their results with neighboring Micronesian islands, including Pohnpei, Kosrae and Chuuk. Those islands are all the Federated States of Micronesia, which is a signatory to the Micronesia Challengean ambitious commitment by Micronesian governments to strike a critical balance between the need to use their natural resources today and the need to sustain those resources for future generations. Pohnpei has already established its own watershed group; the other two islands are on track to have their own by 2012.

“The BWA demonstrates the power of community-based conservation,” says Sengebau. “Once people realized that protecting the watershed is directly related to the quality of their lives, they saw the BWA could be a very positive development for Palau.”  


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