A world away from Paris, erratic climate pushes a country to the edge

© Jeff Yonover

Editor’s Note: As world leaders meet in Paris to negotiate a global climate change agreement, people across the planet are already facing the effects of extreme weather events. The major drought currently plaguing Papua New Guinea — likely exacerbated by climate change — has seen little news coverage outside the Asia-Pacific region.

Merida Ginisi cares for a giant clam farm on Wiyaloki, a small island in southeastern Papua New Guinea (PNG). For a decade, she and her family have been working to protect this pocket of the Pacific Ocean and the species within it for future generations — until the current drought took hold.

Since June this year, low rainfall has slashed crop yields and depleted food stores for families across the country’s largely rural population. Last month, Ginisi’s family was forced to harvest some of their most prized possessions — the giant clams they’ve worked so hard to protect — simply because the community needed something to eat.

This may seem like a failure of conservation — albeit an inevitable one given the circumstances. Yet it is precisely because this family prioritized the health of their environment that they built themselves a crucial safety net that has kept them alive.

On their own

For centuries, Papua New Guinea’s steep mountain ranges have isolated many rural communities from each other. This fostered not only the evolution of a record number of native languages, but also a diverse range of local horticulture adapted to local conditions, ensuring that most families are relatively self-sufficient.

“About 7 million people — 80% of the country’s population — rely on subsistence agriculture for survival,” said David Mitchell, country director of Conservation International (CI) Papua New Guinea.

“Island people here in this part of PNG essentially rely on four things,” he continued. “Fresh water, like everyone on Earth. Coconuts, which are their most consistent source of vitamins and nutrients. Yams — most families in this part of PNG build up a store of these, which provides them with food between harvests. Their fourth source of nourishment is the ocean, which provides a wide range of protein.”

“But with an erratic shift in environmental conditions set in motion by climate change, all of these are under threat.”

An ecosystem gone awry

According to Mitchell, in the western Pacific the sea is rising by at least 1.8 millimeters a year. Even this seemingly small amount is causing Papua New Guinea to lose coastline, as well as premium gardening land. But the more immediate threat of sea-level rise for small islands like Ginisi’s is the increasing salinity of the water table, which — combined with the drought — creates a more pressing concern.

“The country’s low-lying islands and atolls are starting to lose their freshwater stores to salinization,” Mitchell said. “And there’s no going back once that happens. In the Engineer Islands in southeastern PNG, hundreds of people are drinking brackish water because they have no alternative, and children are beginning to get sick as a result.”

The drought, which has been attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon but which observers contend is being exacerbated by climate change, is also taking a toll on important food crops.

“This year, the yields of staple root crops were essentially halved, drastically reducing the amount of yams available to store,” Mitchell reported. “For many people, this is a double whammy, because last year there was a cyclone that flattened all the bananas, and those crops are still recovering. In addition, the coconut palm trees, which normally produce fruit year-round, are also beginning to fail. Come January there will be nothing left.”

The situation is a world away from areas where droughts garnered far more attention, but where far less was at stake.

As Whitney Anderson of CI’s Coral Triangle Initiative program put it: “There may be a drought in California, but it is unlikely that any Californians will actually starve because of it. Prices will go up and no one will be very happy about it, but PNG is completely different: We’re talking about 7 million people who literally grow their own food. Most of them don’t have cash jobs. So when their food source becomes less reliable, there isn’t an alternative.”

In acknowledgement of the dire situation facing its neighbor, the Australian government has agreed to send AU$ 9 million (US$ 6.6 million) in drought relief. But as extreme weather events like droughts become more frequent worldwide, communities must find a more sustainable solution.

The last resort

Facing the decline of their other staple food supplies, more coastal Papuans are turning to their last resort: the sea. Though local coral reefs are experiencing bleaching and other impacts due to El Niño and climate change, they remain in relatively good health — largely thanks to the community-based conservation efforts of the past 10 years or so.

Ginisi’s family restricts fishing on a coral reef stretching more than 500 hectares (1,235 acres) on the west side of the island on which they live. They began gathering giant clams from other areas and aggregated them in an area near the village to help build the population. Today, there are dozens of mature giant clams the size of adult pigs, and many new baby giant clams in the protected area — no small feat for a species that has faced years of decline in many nearby reefs.

With generous support from USAID’s Pacific-American Climate Fund, CI is working with the communities on the Engineers and other island chains to share Ginisi’s story and collaborate with her community. CI’s projects use traditional storytelling and videos in local languages to talk with villages like this one about how to sustainably manage marine resources. Additionally, CI trains young people to scientifically monitor their local reefs, fostering a new generation of ocean stewards. These programs help to boost the health and abundance of marine resources — and to give local communities a better chance of weathering the dramatic impacts of climate change.

If Ginisi hadn’t taken action to protect the giant clams, her family wouldn’t have had this resource — and if the global community doesn’t take action to mitigate climate change soon, even her clams will not be enough.

“Communities across PNG are teetering on the edge of a massive climate catastrophe in this generation,” Mitchell said. “Time is running out.”

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation News.

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