Behind the postcard

Earlier this year, IFRC photographer Benoit Matsha-Carpentier and writer Patrick Fuller visited five countries across the Pacific to capture the effects of climate change on some of the most vulnerable places on earth and to see what National Red Cross Societies are doing to reduce the risks that people face from disasters and changing weather patterns in the region.

While it is easy to associate climate change with vulnerability and doomsday scenarios in the Pacific, further investigation reveals that, despite facing a very challenging future, Pacific Islanders can and are taking action to address the challenges they face. Throughout history they have dealt with enormous change and adversity. A strong sense of community and reciprocity amongst families combined with traditional knowledge has helped communities to adapt to their changing environment. Building upon this inherent resilience, the Red Cross is working with communities and governments across the Pacific to tackle and reduce the risks posed by a variety of natural hazards, including increasingly destructive storms, droughts and their associated socio-economic impacts.

Pacific Red Cross Societies are there before, during and after a disaster strikes.


Samoa

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    Samoa, Fasotootai community, May 2013. Children playing under the community hall while their parents are attending a HIV/AIDS awareness session.

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    Vai Sooalo, 19, shows the new latrine provided by the Samoa Red Cross. Improving sanitation and promoting good hygiene habits is one step towards safeguarding the health of local people particularly when disasters strike.

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    Samoa, Afega community. The Red Cross is running a vegetable garden project where they teach the communities agriculture best practices. They also provide seeds, fertilizer and plants.

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    Samoa, Savaii Island, Vaiafai village. Fata Poasu, 58, is a farmer. He received a latrine from the Samoa Red Cross and will soon be receiving a water tank to harvest rain water. This tank will allow him to come back to live next to his plantation with his family.


Fiji

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    During the rainy season floods are frequent in Waelea settlement on the outskirts of the capital, Suva. Toilets empty straight into the ground and the lack of sanitation in the area poses a major health risk.

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    Ratu Pio Naulu, 69, lives in Ba town, Votua Village. His home is near the river is frequently flooded when storms arrive. The community is trying to build safer houses by elevating them from the ground, but the level of the river increases every year because of the erosion of the surrounding mountains.

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    The school in Votua Village has been flooded many times over the last few years. Each time, the level of the floodwaters gets higher.

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    The Fiji Red Cross conducts an Emergency Response Training (ERT) to train local volunteers on how to safeguard their community when disasters strike.


Kiribati

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    Manati Takentarawa, 53, has three children. He has been living on his piece of land by the sea for decades and sees the level of the sea rising each year. Often, when the tide is high, his house floods. He says that over the last 10 years, the floods have got much worse.

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    Despite the sea walls built around the island, in Eita village the sea encroaches inland each year. The island also faces a huge waste management problem, with garbage littering the ground and the sea.

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    Pastor Eria Maerere lives in Tebikenikoora village. He has been living here for more than 30 years and is very concerned about the rising sea levels. He and his community are also facing serious difficulties accessing clean water as sea water is intruding into the fragile fresh water lens beneath the island.

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    The sea wall around the village collapsed six years ago and has not been replaced. The sea water has contaminated wells and ground water, making farming difficult. Government water supplies have so far proved inadequate.


Solomon Islands

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    Just outside of the center of Gizo town in the Western province of the Solomon Islands lies the dump where all the island’s rubbish is taken. Earlier this year there was a serious outbreak of dengue fever in the area Just outside of the city centre is the dump where all the rubbish of the island is taken. Earlier this year there was a serious dengue outbreak in the area.

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    Solomon Islands Red Cross volunteers visit isolated populations like Ghatere village on Kolombangra Island by boat to support disaster management projects that include prepositioning of emergency relief items in preparation for the cyclone season.

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    School children in Ghatere are being educated on disasters risks and on the best way to prepare. Here Ogier Kiko, branch officer of the Solomon Islands Red Cross Gizo Chapter explains some of the precautions the children can take in the event of a natural disaster.

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    A child drinks from the only water access in this part of the village. The water is provided by pipeline because local wells are regularly polluted with seawater.

Looking to the past to turn back the tide in the Solomon Islands

 Silas Kere

48-year-old Silas Kere might be considered an expert on climate change. He has dedicated his life to finding solutions that help his community to adapt to the creeping effects of changing weather patterns on agricultural production in his village Ghatere, on Kolombangra Island in the remote Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Reaching Kolombangra requires an hour’s boat journey from the nearest town of Gizo. The village’s 1,000 inhabitants are largely cut off from the outside world. There are no roads, no cars and no TV. Most families depend on processing copra (dried coconut) and subsistence farming – growing staple root crops like yam, cassava and taro.

48-year-old Silas Kere might be considered an expert on climate change. He has dedicated his life to finding solutions that help his community to adapt to the creeping effects of changing weather patterns on agricultural production in his village Ghatere, on Kolombangra Island in the remote Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Reaching Kolombangra requires an hour’s boat journey from the nearest town of Gizo. The village’s 1,000 inhabitants are largely cut off from the outside world. There are no roads, no cars and no TV. Most families depend on processing copra (dried coconut) and subsistence farming – growing staple root crops like yam, cassava and taro.

“We used to know what crops to plant and when, but now it rains when it’s meant to be dry and the rains have got much heavier. The seasons are mixed up and unpredictable. It’s also much hotter,” Silas says.

The fluctuations in extreme rainfall and intense heat have caused many problems for local farmers. Yields are down and crops are prone to fungal infections and blight caused by attacks from pests.

Yields of staples that once thrived, such as sweet potato and cassava have plummeted. Pepilyn used to harvest 20 kilos of sweet potatoes from just three mounds of the tubers. Now she has to dig up ten mounds to find just five kilos.

“We used to travel to Gizo to sell our vegetables. This was our livelihood but now we don’t have enough to sell. Our yields have dropped by at least 50 per cent in the past 20 years – now we have to work harder and plant much more than before,” she says.

Silas Kere has been working with Pepilyn and other members of the village, experimenting with different agricultural techniques, using trial and error to find new ways of growing food and to see which plants thrive under the changing weather conditions. The village is dotted with disused wooden canoes suspended from the ground that are filled with an array of healthy looking vegetables sprouting from manure. The shallow water table was causing water-logging of household vegetable patches so Silas struck upon the idea of raised vegetable beds or basket gardens to overcome the problem.

The direct effects of climate change in Ghatere are being exacerbated by the threat from natural disasters. Since 2009, Ogier Kiko, who manages the Solomon Islands Red Cross office in Gizo, has been running a climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction programme supported by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian and Civil Protection (ECHO) and the French Red Cross. The project is underway on four islands in the Western province and Ghatere was one of the communities identified as having particular vulnerabilities.

“The impacts of climate change and threats posed by natural disasters are closely linked. Ghatere is prone to tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural hazards. The rise in sea level poses a very real threat to these coastal communities,” Ogier says.

The first step for the Red Cross was to help the community establish a village disaster risk committee responsible for all disaster management programmes. A vulnerability and capacity assessment was carried out to identify some of the main risks that needed to be addressed. Having a village disaster response plan with an evacuation centre was top on the list followed by the construction of a seawall to protect the village from tidal surges. The third priority was to establish HF radio communication in the local clinic to enable communication with Gizo hospital in the event of a major disaster.

In 2007, the village was inundated by a tsunami caused by an undersea earthquake 25 miles off the coast. Since then there has been a noticeable change in local tidal patterns. During ‘king tides’ the sea surges into the low-lying village. In an effort to prevent this, the community built a 100 metre seawall. Barely a metre high, the wall offers little defence against the sea. Now, the Red Cross may give a helping hand to make the defences higher and stronger.

“We are looking at intervening on a number of different levels,” says Ogier. “We have already provided the village with some disaster preparedness stocks such as tarpaulins for emergency shelter and plastic jerry cans for storing water. We may also help with the construction of a raised evacuation centre and improve sanitation in the village by constructing toilets.”

38-year-old Puia Mosely makes a living from producing copra – dried coconut – which is sold for export. He is concerned about the impact that rising sea levels are having on the future of the coconut palms that fringe the lagoon behind the village.

“The tides are now much higher. As kids we used to play soccer where the lagoon is now”, he says, pointing to the vast inland lake leading out to the sea. “Now the sea is killing off our coconuts and sago palms and the salt water is coming into our gardens.”

Areas that used to be cultivated as vegetable gardens close to the edge of the sea now lie waterlogged and abandoned. Villagers have had to relocate their gardens deep into the interior of the jungle where they face other problems such as raids on their plots from wild-pigs and birds.

Silas Kere’s main objective is to ensure that the population of Ghatere has food security in the years ahead. He believes that the answer lies in sustainable agriculture that can adapt to shifting weather patterns.

“I am experimenting with a variety of swamp Taro that can grow where the gardens are now waterlogged. I am also trying to get people to reintroduce traditional varieties of tubers that are resistant to insect attacks,” he says. “Sometimes we have to look back to the old ways to cope with new problems.”

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Cook Islands

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    Piri Metua, 53, is married with seven children and works on his farm. Piri used to grow wet taro in the swamp on Mangaia island but due to water scarcity he has started to experiment with new types of crops such as vanilla.

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    Many people on Mangaia dependent on the environment for their livelihoods. Some search each day in surrounding hills to harvest plants suitable for making necklaces, jewelry and other products to sell.

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    As part of its community based disaster preparedness programme, the Red Cross runs first aid training for the population of Mangaia. These courses give local people life-saving skills and also provide a valuable source of income for the Cook Islands Red Cross.

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    Mama Teio, 79 with 12 year olds Angela White, left and Dawn Teio. Migration from Mangaia has left a predominantly elderly population and the local branch is running a 'Junior Red Cross' programme where young students visit the elderly to provide essential supplies and conversation.

Cook Islanders struggle to adapt to creeping climate change

Cook Islands livelihoods

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the Cook Islands, a tropical paradise of pristine white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. Despite the abundant natural beauty, most would be totally unaware of the creeping threat that climate change is posing to the fragile ecosystems of the islands.

Comprised of a group of 15 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands have a landmass of just  237 square kilometres,  although  the territorial waters surrounding the islands stretch for nearly 2 million kilometres.

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the Cook Islands, a tropical paradise of pristine white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. Despite the abundant natural beauty, most would be totally unaware of the creeping threat that climate change is posing to the fragile ecosystems of the islands.

Comprised of a group of 15 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands have a landmass of just  237 square kilometres,  although  the territorial waters surrounding the islands stretch for nearly 2 million kilometres.

The islands are divided into two distinct geographic groups. The southern group tend to be high volcanic islands, whereas the northern group of islands are coral atolls mainly made up of circular sand cays around a lagoon. The northern islands are increasingly vulnerable to rising sea-levels. In 1997 almost half the population of the island of Manihiki was relocated to Raratonga and then to New Zealand. Standing barely four metres above sea-level, the island has become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding.

The story in the most southern of the Cook Islands, Mangaia, is very different. A coral island forced up by seismic activity centuries ago, the centre of Mangaia rises up into densely forested hills.

Every day, retired schoolteacher Tearapiri Teaurima can be found tending his Taro plantation in the fields adjacent to his home. At 72, he is finding the task increasingly arduous. “When I was a boy this whole valley was cultivated,” he says. “All you could see here were Taro swamps; we would swim around as we helped our parents. Now there is no water flowing down the valleys, the streams have dried up, the swamps are gone and many of the fields have been left to run wild because so many young people have migrated.”

As a farmer Tearapiri is acutely aware of the changing weather patterns on the island. “Now the winters are milder and they last longer. Traditionally it rained three days before a new moon which was when we would plant our seeds, but now the rains are unpredictable so we are having to change our methods of planting, using less water.”

Local fishermen such as Ngametua Tangatakino are also feeling the effects of climate change.
“I’ve really noticed the changes in the ocean currents around the island. The current patterns are unusual, they switch direction abruptly and sometimes go in circles, its hard to know where to put my line down”.

Ngamentua works as a marine officer with the government. In 2010 he spent six months recording tidal patterns around Mangaia and found that the average low tide mark had become significantly higher. Now, it is rare that the reef surrounding the island is exposed at low tide, denying local woman the opportunity to forage for crabs and snails – a traditional mainstay of the local diet.

Local fisherman on Mangaia all agree that things are changing. Fish are not coming in season, tides are changing and ocean fauna is disappearing.

“We used to know which season a fish will be abundant which gave us time to prepare our equipment,” explains omne fisherman. “Now we just don’t know and some fish don’t come anymore. The whales that migrate past here every year should be next to the reef now, but they come two months later and leave later.”

Some think that the absence of certain fish species is due to the increasing acidification in the Cook Islands’ waters which has led to the disappearance of seaweed in the lagoon which disrupting the food chain. A scientific survey conducted in 2010 revealed that seaweed stocks had almost disappeared from the deep ocean surrounding Mangaia.

“There used to be so many varieties of seaweed but now we are left with only a few. They are saying that 20 years from now it will all be gone and there won’t be any fish,” says Ngamentua.

In recent years there has also been an emerging pattern of more intense storms and higher category cyclones. Early in 2005 – the Cooks experienced five cyclones in one week and in 2010, the island of Aitutaki experienced one of the worst cyclones in memory when 80 per cent of the houses on the island lost their roofs.

Rebs Samuel heads the Cook Islands disaster risk reduction programme. He works closely with the local community in Mangaia and helped to start a ‘Tie-down’ project across the island.
“The basic idea is to tie down your roof so that your home can withstand strong winds,” he says. “This concept is already familiar to Cook Islanders. But we find from our surveys that most people can’t afford to purchase the concrete anchor and the rope so we provide the materials and train people from the community who then help others.”

According to Paul Davenport, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent’s (IFRC) resilience coordinator for the Pacific, climate change is just one of a combination of factors driving vulnerability in the Cooks. Depopulation is a major issue, particularly in the outer islands where people from the age of 18-40 often migrate to Raratonga or New Zealand. In recent years Mangaia’s population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents to just over 400.
“When you combine depopulation with the affects of climate change, such as a reduction in rainfall, changing fishing seasons and reduced fish stocks, you end up with an environment where life is more of a struggle for the mainly elderly population that remain. They are far more vulnerable as they don’t have the family network to support them,” Davenport says.

The Red Cross is part of the government’s national sustainable development plan. For Frances Topa Fariu, secretary general of the Cook Islands Red Cross, climate change has become an issue that cuts across all of the organization’s programmes.

“We see the Red Cross as playing a vital role in tackling the issue at the grassroots level,” she says. “The challenge is to build the capacity of our Red Cross branches in the outer islands so that we can fully understand the needs of isolated communities and help them adapt to climate change.”

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