In an interview with Elizabeth Perry, below, Tagolyn Kabekabe, Anglican Alliance Facilitator for the Pacific, speaks about the importance of water, how it is connected to climate change, and the support Pacific Islanders need.
With thanks to Elizabeth Perry and Christian Concern for One World for sharing the news and prayer points.
Tagolyn describes the particular stresses changed rainfall patterns place on atoll communities dependent on rainfall for their water supply, unusual tide patterns that have far-reaching impacts on the ecosystem, whole communities facing relocation because of rising sea levels and the impacts of excess or salt water on food security. Challenges also interrelate and have further impacts. As Tagolyn says, “a lot of these things are connected”.
This Sunday 22 March, is World Water Day. As you celebrate it, please pray:
- For the Pacific islands and all communities whose access to water is threatened by climate change and environmental degradation. Pray for their work to adapt to what is happening, that they may be protected from storms and that all countries may take rapid action to reduce carbon emissions, so as to prevent more severe climate impacts.
- For the people of all the Pacific Islands affected by Tropical Cyclone Pam, and especially for Vanuatu. Pray for all who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods and for those who are working to recover and to help others in their recovery.
- In thanksgiving for “God’s life-giving gift” of oceans and all forms of water and for the appreciation that Pacific islanders show for it. Pray that all people may genuinely appreciate water and not take it for granted.
- That we may all understand the interconnectedness of life on earth, each others’ ways of relating to the earth, and the ways in which our decisions impact others and that when we understand our neighbours’ needs, we may show our love through changed behaviours.
The impact of climate change, including extreme and unpredictable weather systems, is all too real in the week that the neighbouring islands of Vanuatu have faced the devastating onslaught of Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Pacific.
Speaking earlier this week at a UN conference on disaster risk reduction in Japan, Vanuatu’s president, Baldwin Lonsdale, said that Cyclone Pam was directly linked to climate change. ‘We see the level of sea rise …The cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected. This year we have more than in any year … Yes, climate change is contributing to this,’ he said.
This interview talks of some of the other impacts of climate change bringing water-related challenges to the Pacific Islanders – and reflects their call to the rest of the world to raise our voices for World Water Day.
What are some of the water-related challenges that affect people in the Solomon Islands?
People in the Pacific face a lot of challenges with water.
Given the impacts of climate change we have very unstable patterns of rain, which really affects water collection as our water supply does not last for the intended period of time. Most of our rural communities are on small, low-lying islands, which do not have rivers so we very much depend on rainwater.
How have rainfall patterns changed?
Rain patterns have changed because there are two major changes we have experienced in the region: one is that we don’t get the rains when we expect them and two, when we do get the rain it‘s either too much or too little.
Take last year: September and October are usually towards the end of the dry season for us and last year we had unusual rainfall during those two months. It really affected our people, especially our atoll communities – by then their swamp taro crops are just about ready, but if there is too much rain it actually rots the tubers and so it affects the community’s food supply.
On the mainland, when we get too much rain it affects what we call koumara – sweet potato. Even though the crop grows green and wild, there’s hardly any tubers. So the rain patterns affect our gardening practices, our harvesting, our planting – just about everything.
What impact does this have on people in the Islands?
When this happens people do not get their supply of root crops and when they don’t get their supply of root crops they have to find an alternative. Traditionally we depend on our root crops (apart from things like coconuts) and so now we’re experiencing this change of rain pattern it affects the crops – it makes people have to look for alternatives. People now start to depend more on rice and flour products and, though they are very good because they fill the gap, they also bring about health issues.
Obesity and NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are on the rise in our region. There is an increase in diabetes, increase in blood pressure – these are diseases that we did not know of in the past. Traditionally our people are very healthy.
Climate change is also bringing about diseases in our plants.
For example on my island we have this particular disease that affects our koumara. New crops can be growing very healthily and then this little yellow butterfly comes and sits on the crop. A week later the leaves all start to curl and go brown. Two weeks later the whole place is brown and there is no green left. And when that happens there are no tubers, everything just simply dies. That is what is happening now. Cases were reported 10 – 15 years ago, but still today they cannot find a remedy.
So islanders have been used to growing their own crops and now they’re having to buy imported food. How is that financed?
That’s a good question! For our very rural people who are subsistence farmers and who very much live off the land, it’s a struggle to be able to buy the rice, which means that what little crops they have, they have to sell, or, if they have children who are working in towns and cities, they depend on them. I do the same. I buy my mother a bale of rice every month, just to supplement the root crops that they have. It puts a strain on our community.
People have to go far to look for fish. We also connect that with the impacts of climate change because we are also experiencing unusual tide patterns. Low tide is usually a time of plentiful seafood, but now the low tides are lasting longer. This affects the whole eco-system of the sea and so now we have a shortage of shellfish because the shellfish are moving away to find new breeding ground.
And what about the problem of salination of crops? Is that a problem as well?
Rising sea levels poses a huge threat to gardens. In the Solomon Islands you might have the coastline that is quite hilly but as you go inland it is lower so as the tide comes up you have water rising inland and with a lot of this, some of this is actually swamps inland. And so when we have this rising sea level and unusual high tides and things like that, it actually destroys crops that are grown not only along the beach or coastline, but also inland. The extra salt affects the crops, rots tubers and limits the growth of things like bananas, bread fruits, and coconuts.
The biggest challenge for us is how can we control these things, which are really beyond us? We cannot control sea level rise, we cannot control how much rain falls onto the crops. And so our people are left with nothing in the sense that they cannot protect themselves from these things and so the people simply get on with what happens.
How much do people on the islands understand about what is happening?
It’s very interesting that people do notice the changes but in my local language there is no word to describe climate change. So people notice the changes like the sea coming in, they notice the impacts when too much salt kills their plants, but to connect it to the impacts of climate change is something that is very new to them. When I did some awareness raising with my community I asked them the simple question, ‘Can you tell me what else you see that has changed?’, and they revealed so many things, like how it’s harder to find fish now closer to home, and we don’t get the turtles coming close to the villages now because there’s no more of a certain seaweed. They were able to connect a lot of things, but understanding that this is the impacts of climate change is something they are only now beginning to understand.
And when people find out about climate change and what’s causing it, what are people’s reactions?
Through initial discussions they were relating what they were seeing to creation and to their faith as Christians. Then they learnt that global industries and other actions are worsening climate change and they say, ‘Oh, that is not fair”
When I was a kid there was this very big whale that died and got washed ashore and there was a lot of oil that came out from this big thing and it affected the beach. Even the birds got caught in the oil. And so people can relate to that.
But mostly people ask, “What can we do?” We cannot control the sea coming in. We cannot control the rain. So what are we going to do? That is the biggest challenge for me. They said, “We can plant mangroves along the sea front to stop the sea from coming in. We are not going to totally stop the sea from coming in but at least it becomes a barrier”.
What these people need is information, correct information that they can easily understand and relate to their own situation – out of that they can do something for themselves.
How is the Anglican Church of Melanesia helping with such initiatives?
The awareness I did in the village was part of my work with the Anglican Alliance and the local church. The Church have been running workshops and collaborating with the government department responsible for climate change, but key role of the church is to reach rural communities and involve them in these discussions.
The Church is doing its very best to do that. It’s bringing in people for different types of training in governance and leadership, but it also needs to be active on cross-cutting issues.
How would you like people in richer countries – or anywhere in the world – to respond? How would you like them to pray? What message do you have for them?
I think the first message is, as Christians, we used to say to ourselves as island people that we live every day through the blessings of others and through the prayers of the faithful. And so the first thing we ask for is their prayers – that we don’t continue to have these unusual rainfalls and strong winds and all these things.
As spiritual people we pray every day – given any situation our first resort is, ‘Let’s pray about this’. And so we don’t panic but we pray. And that helps us to make informed decisions about the situations we are confronted with. So I think that’s the first thing – we need everybody’s prayers in our situation.
The second thing is that with the developed countries, the Western countries, what we need as people of the Pacific is greater understanding of the issues we are confronted with. We don’t want people to throw money at us and say, ‘That’s the money, now fix your problem’. What we really need is their understanding, to put their feet in our shoes and really understand how we are affected by the ocean, how we are affected by the wind, how we are affected by the rain and by the sun. Having that greater understanding of how we are affected, they will then respond positively to us, in a way that will have a long-term impact on us and a sustainable impact on our people. So those are my two messages.
Interview by Elizabeth Perry, who has just returned from the Solomon Island, where she was evaluating the Anglican Alliance’s Agents of Change distance learning initiative. This article is also being published in Christian Concern for One World.