Submitted by guest blogger on Fri, 07/12/2013

By Dr James Dalton, Coordinator, Global Initiatives, IUCN Water Programme.

‘Nam bilong me James Dalton’ – I said as we all did introductions in Pidgin at the beginning of the stakeholder consultation meeting in Gizo, the capital of the Western Province of the Solomon Islands.  We continued introductions around the table and I handed over to Samson Rihuoha.  Sam is a Pastor, and an excellent facilitator – he has a voice that makes you want to listen, all day – perfect for his job.

Sam was part of the team I was working with to design an adaptation programme for the Solomon Islands Government to be funded by the Global Environment Facility.  I used to live in the Pacific before my IUCN days, and it was very good to be back in the region – to bump into old friends and colleagues and discuss the never-ending politics of the region. But we have a challenging task ahead of us. We need to look at how we can use adaptation approaches to help the water sector ready itself for climate change impacts in the future.  It’s not an easy task for a country of 974 islands, around 80 indigenous languages, active volcanoes, cyclones and tsunamis.

Photo by James Dalton

Gizo town itself was the scene of a devastating tsunami in 2007 which killed 54 people and caused huge amounts of damage, some of it still apparent both physically and in the minds of people we spoke to. We were in Gizo to conduct a rapid vulnerability assessment of the town which was selected as one of the pilot sites for the project. 

How can a town improve its water storage, the quality and availability of that water, and distribute it to people in a way that can withstand the predicted climate impacts, as well as cope with the existing threats such as cyclones, floods, drought, and tsunamis? We don’t have a ready answer for that yet, but we were able to build a picture of what activities could be funded to protect the watershed and source supplying the town with water, and build on strong community governance approaches to look at better access, distribution, and storage of water. 

Following the tsunami, many people moved away from the coast.  In doing so they encroached into watershed protection zones designed as areas to minimise disturbance to maintain good water quality catchment areas.  This water is then piped into surrounding villages and Gizo town itself.  Entering the watershed protection zones has caused problems with people tapping into the piped water supply, reducing the amount of water available to the town, and affecting the quality of the water at the same time. 

But it is understandable.  Waves of up to 12 metres high would force me to move away from the coastline – despite the view.  Gizo is also struggling to source enough water from the spring it uses without this additional pressure – as the drying climate, more sporadic rainfall patterns, and increasing population put pressure on the islands water resources. In the Solomon Islands extremes are ‘normal’ – the island of Guadalcanal is famous for having a difference in rainfall from the East coast which gets 0.25m a year, to the West which gets 12.5m a year! 

Gizo is only one of the proposed pilot sites. We are working across a number of sites to identify strategic investments for the water sector from an adaptation perspective. Sam and the rest of the team with Milika Sobey from our Regional Office in Fiji will be working their way across the remaining sites over the coming few months.

One thing that is noticeable in the Pacific is that adaptation is a way of life. It is a process which, although specific project activities can help with, you cannot walk away from comfortable that things are ‘adapted’ to climate change for that long.  Adaptation is an ongoing part of life given predictions for the Solomon Islands suggest that approximately half the country will get drier and the other half will get wetter.

So it is not about whether this is community-based, ecosystem-based, ‘no-regrets’, demonstrating ‘additionality’ etc – it is about simple, practical solutions to real world problems affecting people and the island ecosystems they rely on.  I don’t need to make that into an adaptation acronym given this is about sensible water management. 

After a few flights and boat rides it was back to Honiara for further consultations with donors and key stakeholders in the Government and civil society groups to review what we had found out, develop our plan for the rest of the pilot site visits, and start to pull together our climate response ideas.  We have another four months to get things into shape as a programme design before we present our ideas back in Honiara to get feedback and suggestions.  What is clear is the demand for adaptation, but what is often not clear is the best way to go about this. Solomon Islanders live in a climate of shifting extremes even without further climate change – the key is harnessing their local experience and knowledge and using it in a structured way.