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Q&A: Satellites to the rescue in the Solomon Islands?

Dr Brian Jones, British High Commissioner to Solomon Islands
Dr Brian Jones, British High Commissioner to Solomon Islands

 

How are the Solomon Islands tackling the double threats of COVID-19 and climate change? British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, shares his thoughts.

Introduction

According to the World Bank, the Oceanian nation’s rural population sits at over 75% with the main business activities being tuna fishing, mining, and timber.

As both COVID-19 and climate change make rural living more difficult in many parts of the Pacific region, British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Mr Brian Jones, says it poses further dangers to the country’s environment. He says that satellite technology could provide some support.

“With travel movements currently restricted, more challenging environmental conditions for growing subsistence crops being experienced, and with no defined date for the tourism industry to restart again… it's more difficult than ever to live in rural areas,” Jones explained.

Jones said that the challenge is, when people become affected economically and become desperate to derive an income — perhaps as a result of COVID-19’s impacts on the country’s tourism industry and associated livelihoods — they are more likely to sell their rights to the environment to “unscrupulous extractive industries” at a lower rate. If not done with due consideration, this could result in speeding up the effects of climate change on the rural communities by enhancing soil erosion, enhancing the turbidity of water around those islands, and damaging coral reefs and fish, he added.

However, by using satellites, with the ability to provide data on more hard-to-reach rural locations, this technology could allow policymakers to take better action to protect the environment and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

“It's a real opportunity to get around the tyranny of isolation and the tyranny of distance here in the Solomon Islands, and to be able to use space-based technology to inform land-based decision making and mitigation,” Jones said.

In an interview, he detailed the toll both threats are having on the Solomon Islands and the ways in which satellite technology is already being used to mitigate the effects.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Can you describe the effects of climate change on the Solomon Islands as a nation and what action is it forcing residents to take?

The dry seasons are becoming longer and hotter. This phenomenon causes the scorching of young crops and results in challenges for islanders to grow their subsistence agricultural crops. This has resulted in a real decline in food availability, particularly in remote islands.

Elsewhere … the stunting of coconut trees has also occurred.

In some areas of the Malaita outer islands, including Ontung Java, the tides are now higher and this results in saltwater inundation to the low lying areas around the coast, with the repeated influx of saltwater. Contamination of the ground stunts the growth potential of coconut trees, which then do not bear fruit as easily and become shorter and less productive. Coconuts remain at the heart of island life and diet in many of the smaller islands around the Solomons. A loss in coconut production as a crop, therefore, really affects the population’s diet, food availability and nutritional variety.

Some of the very small islands are also about to become uninhabitable. In these islands, the limited groundwater and freshwater resources have become contaminated and brackish, as sea water seeps into those aquifers. With the resulting absence of any drinkable fresh water on the islands, they become uninhabitable. In some places, specifically around the distant province of Temotu, we have seen people having to move to neighbouring islands for this reason.

I wish to also draw your attention to two other aspects of increasing prevalence in the Solomon Islands. These are viruses (such as African swine fever and bird flu that cause restrictions to agricultural practices) and the increasing scourge of the coconut rhinoceros beetle (a particularly nasty pest with a larva that burrows down and eats the center of the palm, rendering the crop useless).

Flood Solomon Islands
A child walks through a flooded village, Solomon Islands

 

How do the effects of climate change impact the people of the Solomon Islands?

Generally speaking, the Solomon Islands are similar to any other Pacific islands because of their geographical location. The Solomon Islands are thus vulnerable to a whole range of natural disasters …

These natural occurring disasters include excessive rainfall, cyclones, and earthquakes and mean that the population is vulnerable, and it sometimes has to deal with a multitude of catastrophic events. For centuries, people have had natural and traditional ways of coping with these catastrophes. One of the safeguards in the past has been to grow and store more hardy food. This food source included relying on stored dried food, whilst fresh fruit and vegetable agriculture recovers following a cyclonic event. The problem is, however, that with climate change, issues of salination, longer dry seasons and scorching means that the natural mitigation measures taken in the past by growing a variety of cyclone proof and rainproof crops, has made it more difficult to maintain these traditional methods. The result is an overall decline in food security because of this continuous vulnerability and slow erosion of the traditional coping mechanisms.

The more difficult it is to sustain food production and crops on remote islands, the more attractive it becomes for the population to migrate to urbanised areas. This has two effects. One is that the younger generations move away from distant islands and from agricultural subsistence living. This traditional knowledge and the skills required to cope also then go into decline. Secondly with urbanisation, once people are no longer growing crops to sustain their own lives, their economic characteristics change as they come to depend on a monetary value system where cash is required to purchase food. This can result in decisions being made that may compromise factors such as logging rights or deforestation across the Solomon Islands. If left unchecked, this of course compounds further possible environmental issues.

 

What role do you think technology, including satellite remote sensing technology, can play in building climate resilience and tackling COVID-19?

The really exciting thing about using data from satellite remote sensing, as well as other space-based data assets, is that it gives policymakers the ability to look at a number of data sets that were previously very difficult to obtain. Studying distant provinces can take days by ship or air and can be very expensive, time-consuming and unreliable.

Satellite imagery and satellite remote sensing can gather and compare data sets to look at differing vegetation patterns, weather patterns, and sea-surface temperatures. By comparing these data sets with local knowledge, we can look at areas which for example may be too sensitive to permit forestry and deforestation or, areas that would seriously benefit from maritime protection.

The exciting thing is that by bringing these data sets together, it empowers decision-makers with the ability to make more informed choices. With better more environmentally conscious choices being made regarding development or required actions, they can also action mitigation or protection measures to increase climate resilience. For example, knowing that a higher rainfall is likely in a season, farmers can be warned so that they can plant different crops and even put in place different mitigation measures to protect those crops.

Satellite remote sensing technology also has an enforcement angle and can be used by authorities that have traditionally had challenges in keeping abreast of any illegal logging or fishing activities. For example, satellite remote sensing can help to identify patterns of ships and tuna fisheries’ behaviour. Similarly, use of this technology can help identify areas being intensively logged where there is no permission granted for such activity. Supported by satellite remote sensing and armed with the information, enforcement and policy agencies can then take the necessary action to curtail any illegal and unauthorised activities.

 

How could some of these examples be scaled up to help more people?

We have now reached the stage in the CommonSensing project where we have a data cube in place and analytical software that can help compare different sets of space and ground based data. We are also working to ensure that some of the academic data is available not only to the decision makers, but also to students in the Solomon Islands National University and University of the South Pacific. Giving students, as well as decision makers access to this data, enables a whole new generation of professionals to understand some of the complex interactions in their environment and understand the possibilities for innovation. This advanced geographic information system (GIS) technology and the data captured will hopefully encourage all role players to go into the field and use the information supplied, or do further research, so that we can all understand more about how the environment interacts and how climate change is really affecting the Solomon Islands.

 

 

 

2021-03-05

CommonSensing Team

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