For days the wind howled and the seas raged around the village of Mola'a in the Solomon Islands. Saltwater rushed over the island, flattening houses and flooding crops. When the storm finally cleared, Doreen Nolube emerged from the building where she and almost 50 other villagers had waited out the violent storm. Their homes and vegetable gardens had been destroyed. The village was framed with a gnarled mass of downed trees. The reef Doreen and the others depend on for fish to feed their children was covered with sand.
According to Chris Bone, the Managing Director of the New Zealand based charitable organization, OceansWatch, Doreen is just one of millions that are living the impacts of a changing climate. He stated, "Some governments are starting to layer climate change into their national policies and others are attempting to shrug it off but the deaths caused by the heat wave in India and the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam are real whether you believe in climate change or not."
In a paper he co-authored in 2005, Dr. James Hansen of the Colombia University Earth Institute suggests that a significant amount of the carbon dioxide that humans emit stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years. This could mean that, even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow, we may feel the effects of a changing climate well into the future. Chris explained his perspective, "Even if that antique steamship of politics were a race boat that could turn on a dime, it wouldn't be enough. Unfortunately, the science seems to show that we'll keep hearing that, 'The weather has been weird this season,' for a long time to come. And this probably won't be the last news of a humanitarian struggle in the wake of a natural disaster."
The recent experience of villagers in the Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands implies that international and national relief efforts can save lives, but relief supplies may take days, if not weeks, to arrive. After Cyclone Pam, it took weeks for relief supplies from the government and other organizations to reach the Reef Islands of Temotu. These supplies did not reach Doreen. OceansWatch helped fill the gap by supplying food and seeds to several villages, including Mola'a, while WorldVision supported some communities with non-food supplies.
OceansWatch is proposing a solution. According to Chris, a change in emissions policies is important but not enough. He stated that, "Communities are probably going to continue to suffer the ravaging impacts of climate change. Disaster aid is helpful but doesn't reduce the vulnerability of people to these catastrophes." He and his team believe that the way forward is to help people to help themselves by understanding climate change and proactively adapting to it.
OceansWatch is a small charity that started in Matapouri, with the vision of doing exceptional works in remote Pacific villages that other organizations can't reach. They solve the access problem by using sailing yachts. Chris proudly talks of using the Kiwi ethic of hard work, common sense and ingenuity to get the job done, calling to mind that a man from New Zealand was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
OceansWatch has worked in villages in the Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands and in Vanuatu since 2009. They launched their Climate Change Adaptation Program last year. It complements the organization's ongoing work in sustainable fisheries, marine protected areas, and the production and sale of organic-extra virgin coconut oil by village women's cooperatives.
In their Climate Change Adaptation Program, OceansWatch has worked with Doreen and many others to recognize the risks they may face as a result of a changing climate. Chris explains that the OceansWatch field team, made up of experts and skilled volunteers, assists villages to create Local Adaptation Plans. They initiate the process by helping villagers understand previous natural disasters, identify which coping strategies were most important, become aware of the risks of climate change, and think about how they can use these and other strategies to be prepared if another disaster strikes. The goal is to create plans that include concrete actions decided upon by the community that use local resources and knowledge, instead of depending on outside aid after the fact. OceansWatch hopes community actions will result in fortifying social networks, diversifying crop species, protecting/improving water resources, and replanting mangroves. Chris Bone explains that these adaptations are also supported by sustainably improving local incomes through the OceansWatch coconut oil program.
The programs have been well received by Solomon Islanders. Zeroni Panapazio writes, "I believe this activity that Chris and his Ocean Watch are doing in Temotu Province has strong connections and linkages to building community Resilience." According to Doris Puiahi, "This is exactly what our people need to engage in... this bright approach in trying to shift the economic position of the Temotu people. Definitely, this should be a perfect starting point all stakeholders including the Temotu provincial Government should come in to advance the people."
Chris believes that relief supplies are very important but hopes that, in the future, villagers will not be helpless victims standing by to be saved after every natural disaster. For outreach organizations like Oceanswatch, the expectation is that the villagers themselves turn this story around and that they do it using their own knowledge, resources, and work.
World leaders are preparing for the upcoming World Climate Change Summit in France. Even the Pope is calling the world to action on climate change as a humanitarian issue. Chris summed up the situation by saying, "Efforts toward mitigating climate change are crucial for our global future. However, we can't stop the impacts we are already feeling. What we can do is help people to be prepared for the next disaster by creating local solutions and doing a good job at managing our natural resources. Instead of reacting, let's act. And we can do the same thing here in New Zealand. We don't have to wait for the world powers or our own government to get up to speed before we get to work."
If you'd like to learn more about OceansWatch, please visit oceanswatch.org.
Britt Basel, M.Sc. is a Climate Change Adaptation Specialist working with communities around the world.
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