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  • Pacific islanders help shape response to climate change


[PALAU] A novel approach to predicting the likely impact of climate change on island communities in the Pacific, combining official maps and climate models with locally-generated information, has been successfully tested in the Cook Islands.

The approach involves bringing together geographic and climate information with local data to build up a ‘layered’ picture of potential climate impacts that may help a community adapt to climate change.

The pilot project is an initiative launched by the government of the Cook Islands, and was largely carried out by the Rarotonga-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Te Rito Enua, with financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

According to John Waugh, science adviser for Te Rito Enua, the purpose has been to develop a reliable ground-level approach to assessing the vulnerability of communities and help them adapt to climate change, an approach that could be replicated across the region. “I’d even love to see this tried in Africa," he told SciDev.Net.

The project involved working with four communities on two islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Participants were asked to identify specific issues affecting both individual families and the community in general.

They were also asked to supply information about which areas were vulnerable to flooding as a result of seasonal rains, high tides and storm surges.

The community-generated “frames of reference” were then combined with climate models for the country to produce a detailed vulnerability atlas.

According to the NGO, the study demonstrated that regional or national plans can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of local, small-scale adaptation initiatives.

It also identified traditional practices that had been overlooked, but could have considerable value as part of adaptation strategies.

Jay Roop, a senior environment specialist with the Pacific Department of the ADB, told SciDev.Net that this approach was expected to be useful for small island nations such as the Cook Islands, which are considered to be very vulnerable to climate change, in particular as a result of a rise in sea levels and storm surges.

He added that many of the islands rely heavily on natural resources (including water, marine resources, and soil suitable for agricultural production) to sustain their populations and economic growth.

But such natural resources were vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change, directly affecting the resilience and adaptive capacity of island communities.

Waugh emphasised the value of engaging communities in developing their own responses. For example, he described how one community engaged in the pilot project came to the conclusion that the community centre used to provide shelter was too close to the sea shore, and thus vulnerable to storm surges.

He added that the pilot project had shown that adaptation to climate change was everyone's business, and that there was an important role for communities and community-based approaches in adapting to climate change that could not be easily addressed through national-level strategies.

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