Helping Pacific Islanders adapt to climate change

Woman standing while seated people look on (Courtesy of Live & Learn/USAID)
Pelenise Alofa and her team work to address the impacts of climate change on Kiribati. (Courtesy of Live & Learn/USAID)

When Pelenise Alofa moved to Kiribati in 2006, the consequences of rising sea levels on her parents’ country of birth were obvious. Seawater polluted wells, contaminated soil and seeped through the floors of her home.

The sound of waves washing closer frightened her as she slept. “I felt so vulnerable, like the waves could just come and wash us away,” she told the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “But that is normal here.”

By 2011, Alofa began working to change that. She founded the Kiribati Climate Action Network (KiriCAN) to help Kiribati’s 33 low-lying islands adapt to climate change. In 2015, in partnership with USAID, KiriCan began training Pacific Islanders to identify and protect drinking water sources from saltwater contamination and erosion.

The United States works with Pacific Islanders like Alofa to strengthen water collection and irrigation practices in the face of rising sea levels, extreme weather and other consequences of the climate crisis.

We are committed “to tackling the climate crisis, which threatens all of us,” President Biden told the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit in September 2022 in Washington. For Pacific Islanders, he added, the climate crisis is “an existential threat.”

Woman looking over her dry farm land (© Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Helena Iesul works in her vegetable garden in Tanna, Vanuatu. Her crops have suffered during an extended dry season. (© Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Funding resilience

At the summit, Biden announced $810 million in new and expanded funding for the Pacific islands, including $130 million to address the consequences of climate change. Over the last decade, the United States has directly provided more than $1.5 billion in foreign assistance to the Pacific islands.

Additionally, USAID has helped Pacific island countries access over $500 million from international organizations, such as the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund and the Global Environment Facility, to address climate challenges, including sea level rise.

At the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Dialogue in Papua New Guinea in May, the U.S. announced its intent to provide $2 million to help create a Pacific Resilience Facility to support communities’ efforts to adapt to and manage climate impacts.

In Papua New Guinea, the U.S. Department of State has supported Arizona-based firm
SOURCE Global’s deployment of 40 hydropanels, which draw water from the air using solar power. A women-led cooperative operates the panels that will help bring climate-resilient drinking water to two Indigenous villages that have previously relied on imported water.

Person drinking water out of bottle in front of solar panels (© Peter Stevenson)
A U.S. company has deployed equipment to Papua New Guinea that will improve communities’ access to drinking water. (© Peter Stevenson)

Helping farmers adapt

The United States also works with farmers to protect their crops from drought and other extreme weather. In the Solomon Islands, among the countries at greatest risk of natural disasters, USAID has helped 2,500 farmers improve resilience by raising garden beds, planting trees and restoring mangroves, which shield inland farms.

USAID helps farmers in Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea counter climate impacts through farming techniques, such as composting coconut husks to help soil retain water longer in drought conditions.

In Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu, the U.S. supports efforts of the U.N. Development Programme and local partners to advance farm resilience. These efforts include use of water tanks or raised garden beds and plant nurseries to improve harvest of native, perennial foods including coconut, breadfruit, pandanus, swamp taro and fig.

3 people planting crops in field (USAID Pacific American Fund)
U.S. Ambassador Marie Damour, center, plants crops May 18 in Fiji, where USAID supports drought recovery efforts. (USAID Pacific American Fund)

Alofa, of Kiribati, has trained more than 1,300 people on composting and other gardening techniques that enrich soils and require less water. USAID has provided a greenhouse, solar panels, irrigation systems and other supplies to assist climate adaptation efforts in Kiribati.

Saitofi Mika, secretary of Kiribati’s Ministry of Lands and Agricultural Development, says improved farming techniques and adapted crops help Pacific Islanders manage the salt water that sea level rise brings to their farms.

“Our island communities are people of the land and sea,” Mika said. “They are resilient. Yet change is on our doorstep and to survive and thrive, we must adapt.”