BY JARED KOLI
ON a steep slope overlooking the treacherous Solomon seas, a lone figure sits under a tree staring into the distance, the shade from a nearby tree offers a cool respite from Harrison Bita’s struggle for survival with the land.
The 63-year-old’s community at Mandakacho, on the weather-coast of Guadalcanal is an area renowned for unpredictable weather and physically challenging landscape. Sandwiched between the rolling hills that fall into the ‘tasimauri’ or living ocean as it’s known in the local dialect.
For Chief Bita and his people, the only place they set their gardens is on the steep slope and narrow flat land along the coast. From June to August, the weather in these parts can be harsh with months of continuous rain making food production an arduous task.
Changes in weather and climate patterns exacerbated by climate change has turned the land against the very people it is supposed to serve, and destroys their food crops, year after year.
The Weather Coast is not for the faint hearted – compounded with mountainous, rugged terrain, steep coastal mountain slopes, irregular shipping services and is expensive outboard motor transport.
“From March to July it is always raining and it’s often the time of the year we experience low crop, in some instances, whatever crops we grow will not go to harvest,” said Celestine Aloatu, coordinator of the now defunct Talise Community Base Training Centre.
Aloatu said the rainy season in south Guadalcanal can be so extreme, sometimes it takes up to six months of continuous rain. However, this year, they experienced a change.
“In the beginning of the year we tend to expect big swells, but it didn’t happen, the sea is fine right from the beginning of the year. So you see, it slightly changes, this time last year, we experienced very high seas and heavy rain. It is becoming unbelievable,” he said.
Chief Bita said people refer to this period as “time-hungry” with yam and cassava no longer available in most villages due to pests and diseases.
“Heavy rain brought flooding, made worse by strong winds and rough seas and people are normally forced to remain in their houses. It destroys root crops and vegetables grown near river banks,” said Mr Bita.
When this happens, villagers depend on breadfruit, banana, dry coconuts and wild yams to survive, as well as goods from shops, which usually run out of stock if bad weather persists.
“Breadfruit is the main food we often rely on during times of disaster, and also wild yam, locally known as ‘uvi matua’,” Bita adds.
Ara and Koburu
The two main climate systems affecting the Solomon Islands are the south easterly trade winds (Ara) that blow from May through to October and the north westerly monsoon winds (Koburu) that blow from December until March.
During Koburu, winds and abundant rainfall can be expected – a period where tropical cyclones form while Ara triggers higher rainfall.
The weather coast region of south Guadalcanal receives heavy rainfall of 5,000mm to 8,000mm annually during two wet seasons, the first from January to April, the second from May to September.
Maria Bola, a farmer and church leader at Ngalitaverona Village knows what too much rain means for crops.
“It usually leads to sweet potato leaves having small holes. Cassava only bare vines. Bananas also dwarfed and failed to yield good fruit — they were usually smaller than their usual size.
“Almost every crop is affected during the rainy season, sometimes the heavy rain can also cause landslides,” Maria said.
Mr Aloatu said the intense saturation of the soil and made sweet potatoes and cassava fail to tuberise in waterlogged soils.
“We experienced a decline in the fertility of soil where we cultivated our root crops. We usually did our farming on sloped areas, and every year heavy rainfall erodes nutrients away from the top soil.
“Gardens on flat lands were waterlogged, enabling a new environment which harbours thriving plant pests and diseases that affect our staple root crops like cassava, sweet potatoes and taro,” said Aloatu, who has been involved in food bulking for many years until recently.
A rural-based training center he ran until recently offered life skills training such as carpentry and joinery to students as well as farming.
“There are no big trees left on where we make food gardens because year after year we use the same land, this makes it even more vulnerable to erosion, and so when it rains topsoil gets washed away to the sea, carrying with it organic matter and soil nutrients.
“I think that is also one of the factors that contribute to the problem of poor crop yields we experience here,” said a villager, Elson Francis.
Rains, floods and disaster
“The flooding occurred last year from May, June, July and August, four solid months of rain, and one of the worst I’ve seen,” said Francis.
“This is just a small stream but when it rains, floods can be very destructive and often destroy food gardens,” he said.
Further up the stream floods also uprooted and carried away two homes.
Part of this village was swept away, one of the houses standing there was washed away by the floods, forcing families to move to higher grounds.
He said only an elderly woman remained in the village whose house was spared during the flood.
The Director of the Solomon Islands Meteorological Service David Hiriasia said while global temperature fluctuates on a daily basis, the long term average is a temprature increase which is consistent with global warming and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Mr Hiriasia said the country needs the data to back-up what the elders in rural communities have witnessed, and SIMS has recently installed observation weather stations in Marau, east Guadalcanal, Avuavu and Biti in south Guadalcanal and one at Kohimarama.
SIMS is working with communities to revisit traditional knowledge on weather and climate and develop a crop calendar.
“One of the communities on the weather coast of Guadalcanal we work with is within the Moro movement area.
“We develop some crop calendar to promote local crop production such as yam. We would like to expand this, but it also depends on funding, when we collect these traditional knowledge, we can also see these changes,” Hiriasia said.
He said SIMS is collaborating with different stakeholders such as women groups, agriculture agencies, farmers to give them forecasts so that they can plan ahead and choose what crop would be suitable for a period in the weather forecast.
But hundreds of kilometers away on the Weather Coast Chief Bita continues to wonder what climate change will hold for his people and what the future will bring.
- This feature story is produced with support from the ABC International Development Media reporting on climate change story grant 2021