Three years ago, thousands of farmers living on the flat fertile plains of Guadalcanal, the largest island in this South Pacific nation, watched their homes and crops washed away by the strongest torrential rain and flooding they had ever seen.
Now the government is working on new legislation aimed at lowering the risks of that happening again, in part by merging efforts to adapt to climate change and reduce disaster risks in a bid to make development efforts more resilient.
“What I am looking at is risk-informed development,” Sipuru Rove, an officer focused on risk resilient development at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Losses from disasters are rising not just because weather is getting wilder, Rove said, but because the risks aren’t taken adequately into account in Solomon Islands development efforts.
Ensuring disaster risks are considered when development plans are made – not just when a disaster occurs – could change that, he said.
“If there is legislation getting these together, we will be evergreen in dealing with climate threats,” he said. “That is the key to reducing the risks. We don’t wait to react; we have to do it now.”
The Next Disaster
Hilda Suri, who lives with her husband and seven children in Papagu, in one of the most flood-prone areas of the Guadalcanal plains near the Ngalibiu River, said that she sees planning ahead for the next disaster as vital to her family’s survival.
She had just spent two years of work and investment establishing her farm when dramatic floods in April 2014 — which brought 1,000 mm (nearly 40 inches) of rain over a few days — destroyed everything she had planted.
“For three solid days it rained. The water came up from the river, because the river here flows directly toward us. The flood swept everything away. It flooded our house and destroyed about 300 cocoa trees and 80 coconut palm trees,” she remembers.
In the flash flooding, which affected 52,000 people, mainly on the Guadalcanal plains, staples including sweet potato, cassava and bananas, and cash crops such as cocoa, were decimated. Food became scarce and market prices in Honiara, the capital, rose up to 400 percent over the following weeks.
“The extent [of the flood’s impact] was overwhelming and farmers were not ready to cope with that sort of disaster,” said Jules Damutalau, a farming researcher at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
In the Solomon Islands, more than 80 percent of the islands, nearly 600,000 people live in rural areas, and most rely on subsistence or small-scale commercial agriculture, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
But natural disasters, ranging from cyclones to floods and tsunamis, pose a threat to farmers nearly every year. In 2014, 17 percent of total economic losses from the floods came from farm and agriculture losses.
The pressures come on top of those farmers are already expected to face in coming decades from higher temperatures and other climate-related threats, according to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program. Food yields are expected to suffer from increasing heat and water stress, land degradation and pest attacks.
On the Guadalcanal plain, flooding of the Ngalibiu River in 2014 also left behind a thick layer of mud on farm fields — one of the reasons farmers needed two years to return to full crop production, said Rove, of the ministry of agriculture.
Suri, one of those affected, was given new seeds and encouraged to grow mucuna beans – a legume that boosts soil recovery – by the Kastom Gaden Association (KGA), a grassroots non-governmental organization working to improve food security and incomes for local farmers.
The Ministry of Agriculture also advised people to relocate their farms to less flood-prone areas, but Suri intends to continue cultivating the rich soil close to the river. She now carefully plans her fields, however, shifting root crops such as sweet potato to land less susceptible to flooding.
“For other areas which are prone to [flooding], I plant coconut and banana trees so that my children will eat the fruit. At the same time, they are a barrier around the garden,” Suri explained.
The KGA is encouraging farmers to grow on their land the trees they may need to rebuild their homes after a disaster, varieties that produce strong timber for housing posts and sago palms to provide thatching.
The group also has developed simple flood-recovery technologies, such as a timber platform that can be used to dry sodden harvests in the sun so they can be recycled as livestock feed or ground into flour.
Residents say disaster preparedness in Papagu has improved following the construction of a new evacuation center funded by the government’s rural development program. But Suri said she wants to see other measures as well, including better local weather forecasts.
“In the Solomon Islands we can’t predict the stability of the weather and, for us here in the village, we don’t have access to a lot of weather information,” she said.
But she’s also trying out ideas of her own to improve her disaster resilience, such as gathering old tires and using them to build a wall to try to force the river around her land in the event of another deluge.
If she can access machinery to make it possible, she also plans to dig a drain near her house to encourage floodwater to recede more quickly.
“The new government legislation should help drive broader risk reduction efforts at the national level by providing more clarity on the mandate for the government to take action,” said Hudson Kauhiona, acting director for climate change at the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology.
If passed, the legislation, for instance, would broaden responsibility for reducing disaster risks in the country beyond just the national disaster management office, involving additional agencies as well, Rove said.
Efforts to develop more flood-tolerant crops, for instance, could benefit from funding directed at both disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation efforts under the new legislation, which also aims to use resources more efficiently.
The legislation is expected to come before parliament by the end of 2018, Kauhiona said.
Even if it passes, however, experts warned, finding money and other resources to implement the changes may still be a challenge.
“It is quite difficult to get local funding to sustain projects. And the other thing is that we have very limited human resources in terms of technical and scientific expertise,” said Damutalau of the agriculture ministry.