Food supplies under threat as new weather patterns sweep Solomon Islands

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water-logged crop food garden damaged by flooding on Guadalcanal
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By Ben Bilua, Mavis Nishimura Podokolo and Jennifer Kusapa

From King tides swamping villages to crop confusion leaving families hungry, changing weather and climate patterns due to climate change have spawned a new era across the Solomon Islands – forcing people to adapt to survive.

Many Solomon Islanders depend on subsistence agriculture to eat and changing weather and climate patterns now threaten both food security and the effectiveness of traditional knowledge.

Traditionally, Solomon Islands has only two seasons. May to March is dry season, with traditional names called Koburu (Eastern wind) and Ara (Western wind), and November to April is wet season.

For many generations, traditional knowledge handed down from Solomon Islands’ founding fathers and mothers guided when to plant certain crops during these seasons for best results. Across the provinces, farmers report this knowledge is less and less reliable as the season change character.

Intense cyclones, heavier-than-usual rain and sea level rise have made drastic changes to people’s way of living and also the reliability of traditional crops for survival. Central province, Guadalcanal province and Isabel province are amongst the hardest hit areas.

food garden damaged by flooding on Savo

John Keoro from Sisiaka village in Savo Island, Central Islands Province, says his island normally expected extreme wet weather from the end of the year to around April, but this has changed.

“We experience bad weather any time of the year,” the 38-year-old says.

“Disaster resilience has been an issue for us as we are unable to predict disasters to brace our families and the community.”

According to Keoro, traditional knowledge on when to plant traditional crops has been impractical due to the changing weather and climate pattern – meaning food security is a growing concern.

He says other new disaster threats have emerged. Continual heavy rain has caused flash flooding which washed away gardens, the only means of food for many people.  Recent tropical cyclone Lucas is the latest example.

What is left of the Keoro’s family garden on Savo island.

“One of the new disasters that we experience is flash flooding,” he says.

“Our garden has been washed away by pools that used to store water naturally at top of our gardens that became waterlogged.

“My family ended up having nothing to eat for months.

“At the moment we survive on processed foods we bought from the shops.”

Keoro says repeated requests for help from both provincial and national governments have failed to provide solutions.

He says people in Savo survived or get over previous disaster through spirit of community assistance.

“We seek responsible authorities for assistance in previous disasters but we realised that there were empty promises.

“We have short term and long-term types of assistance build from the spirit of community. Short term assistance is when people who are not affected by disaster lend foods to disaster victims. Long term assistance is through sharing of tradition crop’s seed where victims of disaster can replant to provide food for their survival,” Keoro said.

With cash running low and no more crops to sell for income, Keoro says his family is struggling to cope with other needs such as school fees and also providing a healthy diet.

John Tom from Longaka community in Savo Island has had similar experiences.

“It’s really hard to prepare for bad weather because the weather patterns and cyclones seasons are non-standard,” the 53-year-old says. 

“We lost our house, our outrigger canoes and outboard motorboats.

“Our sea walls were destroyed and also our food gardens. Permanent crops were washed away by running water. All because there is less preparation prior to natural disasters like cyclone,” he says.

Mr Tom says today’s weather patterns are radically different from what he remembers growing up and that radio and social media are becoming increasingly important for weather forecasting.

Central Province Environmental Health Officer Julie Leinga says her office is aware of the new threats to agricultural crops in Savo Island.

“We didn’t expect these agricultural damages that recently happened to the people and communities of Savo,” Ms Leinga says.

“We often visit these communities after rainy seasons and cyclones but this year the damages to crops are enormous, leaving nothing behind for people to consume.

“Streams have changed from their usual directions causing damage to food gardens,” she said.

Ms Leinga fears water source contamination from recent disasters will lead to health issues, such as diarrhoea.

In Isabel Province, Chief Martin Goriso from Suva village says sea level rise has changed the landscape of his village.

“I was born and grew up in this village (Suva) way back before the World War II,” the 77-year-old says.

“What I see now is absolutely different from the past.

“This village has changed a lot. The coastline was about 10 to 15 metres away but now waves break just steps away from the village.”

Unpredictable King tides now wash deep into the village and coastal erosion is forcing residents to move further inland, leaving behind their long-time connection to the sea. And, even here, food security is a growing fear. Seashells and other eatable marine creatures are becoming scarce as nearby coral is bleached.

“In the 90s our footpath along the shoreline was far from the sea but now its sinking under water, even the beautiful trees growing along the seashore are gone,” Mr Goriso says.

“My fear is the loss of land by the rising sea.”

Waters where children used to swim and play have become deep and unsafe.

“I feel sorry for my grandchildren and the future generation because they will no longer see and enjoy the beautiful beaches and the beauty of this place,” the Chief says.

Young mother Margret Tige also fears for the children. She says King tides have invaded her back-yard garden.

The 30-year-old’s love of coastal living, with its beach and sparkling sea, has turned to fear.  Her family stays alert every night in fear that rising tides might destroy their home.

“We always stay up late when there is King tide,” Ms Tige says.

“Fear is always there and this is sad for me and my family.”

Margret Tige pointing to saltwater intrusion at Suva village, isabel

Chief Goriso recognises her fear but say re-location is not an option. The families are caught between a natural and a social issue; sea level rise and land disputes.

“As coastal erosion continues, people move in land to build houses but the trend of land disputes also increases,” he says.

Goriso says traditional leaders, provincial government and the national government have tried their best to find the best solution to address land dispute but attempts prove unfertile as landowners refuse to listen.

“Back in the days, we lived together. Both landowners and nonlandowners lived together in spirit of sharing, care and love for each other.

“Population growth and also modern lifestyles have changed people’s way of life. This is really sad for us,” he says.

In Guadalcanal province, where the capital Honiara is located, a comprehensive survey carried out by Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2020 found that two out of every three people experience some level of food insecurity or deprivation. Most either worry about having enough money for food or they have had to compromise the variety or quantity of food because of lack of money. Some are regularly going without food.

Martin Itogho from Komabulu in east Guadalcanal province says traditional crops are not adapting well to the changing weather. He agrees with those from other provinces that traditional knowledge doesn’t work as well as it used to.

“We would plant taro during dry season and from experience harvest was good then; our staple foods are available,” he says.

Drainage were dug to force water out of the SAPE farm on Guadalcanal.

“Now, it is difficult to know when to plant taro because of frequent rain all over the year.”

Itogho says that uncertainty has led to lower yields and food is becoming scarce at times.

Adding to the supply problem, torrential rain brought on by recent tropical cyclone Lucas, swamped gardens in East Guadalcanal.

Director of Solomon Islands Meteorology Service, David Hiba Hiriasia says the current wet weather will have direct impact on Agricultural crops due to water clogged underground.

He stresses that wet weather will affect most communities who depend on agricultural crops production for nutrition and income generation.

Hiriasia says communities in Malaita and Western province have experience unusual King tides believed to be the effect of La Nina.

“Lagoon experiencing coastal flooding reports received form West Are’Are and Western province,” he said.

Hiriasia says the wet season is above normal due to La Nina.

Landslide damaged taro gardens on Savo island during the recent tropical cyclone lucas

“We still be experiencing wet season and so our ministry is working very closely with line ministries in using climate data and rainfall data to ensure crops planted during wet season can tolerate long period of rainfall,” he says.  

From Savo Island to Suva village, Honiara to the most remote islands, the impacts are being felt but the responses are proving inadequate.

The traditional knowledge of yesterday must somehow combine with the solutions of tomorrow.

  •  This feature story is produced with support from the ABC International Development Media reporting on climate change 2021

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