PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From investigating where turtle eggs are buried to how many mangoes are growing in a season, scientists on this southwest Pacific Island are evaluating the accuracy of traditional means of forecasting weather, with the aim of incorporating the most effective ideas into planning to help island communities better prepare for the impacts of climate change and more severe natural disasters.
The project, which looks at indigenous climate wisdom, aims to find ways to better prepare families to confront more extreme weather in a region where vast distances between islands and a lack of modern communications can make building resilience by other means difficult.
Vanuatu’s quarter of a million people live on 82 islands scattered across more than 12,000 square kilometres of ocean.
“In some of these remote places, people cannot use mobile phones and there is no radio reception,” Mike Waiwai, a climatologist at the Department of Meteorology and Geo-Hazards in the capital, Port Vila, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. As a result many far flung villages do not receive national weather warnings.
“So they just depend on the wind and the trees and the birds. They depend on their traditional knowledge” to predict the weather, he explained.
Vanuatu, situated in the equatorial tropics and on the volcanically active Pacific Ring of Fire, has a high risk of disasters. It usually experiences one or two major tropical cyclones each year – up to 23 each decade – as well as tsunamis and floods. The country has nine active volcanoes and the seismic monitoring centre in the capital records earthquakes of varying magnitudes every day.
For generations islanders have closely observed the behaviour of the sea, clouds, wind, insects and plants for forewarning of critical changes in weather patterns. It is these signs that alert people of the need to secure houses and livestock, collect extra water and food supplies or move to safer areas, families say.
On the west coast of the main Efate Island, this knowledge is still important to the 280 inhabitants of Mangaliliu village who depend on fishing and agriculture, livelihoods impacted directly by the weather.
“After sunset, or even in the morning before the sun rises, you can read the clouds,” said the village’s leader, Chief Mormor, seated on a rock by the shore and gazing out to sea. “Our ancestors told us that if you see the sun set and the clouds are very, very red and quickly the sun disappears to a black sky, you know that in the coming week rain will come.”
For the coastal community, tropical storms and cyclones are a significant threat and villagers look for a variety of signs, such as an abundant crop of mangoes or the nesting activities of hornets, to indicate the likelihood of storms.
“Also with turtles, if turtles bury their eggs close to the sea, then you know you will be safe. But if the turtles bury their eggs high up on the shore, then a cyclone is coming and there will be a lot of swell,” Mormor said.
For generations this wisdom has been kept alive orally. But now, following a pilot project in 2012, the Department of Meteorology, along with partners including the regional sustainable development initiative, SPC-GIZ, and the Vanuatu Red Cross, are consulting with villagers on the islands of Tanna, Malekula, Pentecost and Ureparapara to gain their consent for traditional knowledge to be retained in a national archive.
The success of the project depends on local communities participating in the testing and evaluation of traditional weather signs for accuracy. When there is an abundant crop of mangoes, for example, a village representative will notify the national weather forecasting office, which will then monitor atmospheric pressure systems for indicators of a cyclone, Waiwai explained.
CHOOSING THE MOST EFFECTIVE
Indigenous knowledge varies across islands and across different local cultures in Vanuatu, and the most reliable weather indicators will be incorporated with meteorological information into an integrated knowledge system, experts say. This could then be used to tailor disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation plans to the needs of local communities.
“Climate change is real here,” said Fred Hosea, coordinator of a climate change project in the Northwest Efate Island area. “The place is becoming hotter and the pattern of rainfall is changing and affecting the quality of crops, such as yams.”
According to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program, average temperatures in Vanuatu have increased by at least 1 degree Celsius over the past 50 years. This trend is expected to continue and affect food security as crops fail to tolerate more intense heat, scientists say. Wet season rainfall and sea levels are also predicted to rise.
Bringing indigenous knowledge into plans to cope with extreme weather is a way to both involve largely rural people in policy development and help ensure people are equipped with the most culturally appropriate and effective climate information for survival, scientists say.
“The heart of this project is to help people be more prepared in advance of disasters and more resilient after they strike,” emphasised Waiwai, the climatologist.
But documenting indigenous knowledge also could help prevent its loss as new generations of Pacific Islanders change their traditional lifestyles and become more engaged with the cash economy, urban lifestyles and international education.
“Western culture is putting a lot of pressure on traditional ways and village chiefs have shared their concern that many young people are forgetting traditional knowledge,” Waiwai said. “So they have said it is best to collect the information and store it, because people will ask for it in the future.”
Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.