If there was need of any reminder of the growing threat of climate change in Palau, it was the devastation that was left by Typhoon Surigae which hit the nation in April.
Typhoons in Palau are rare, the last typhoon that hit the country was Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 which came closely after Typhoon Bopha in 2012. Typhoon Surigae was considered a surprise event, it was not expected and no one had prepared for its onslaught.
While no one has died, thankfully, it left a trail of devastation, costing over $US4 million in damage, and it will take those affected by the typhoon years to recover.
Palau, with a population of 18,000, is small and like any developing nation, the typhoon exposes its vulnerability to climate change.
According to a 2020 Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) that assessed the climate change indicators in the country, higher temperatures, stronger typhoons, sea-level rise, coral reef bleaching, and loss, and coastal flooding threaten the country as a result of climate change.
President Surangel Whipps Jr., the nation’s new President, although known to focus on the economy rather than the environment during his administration also admitted that climate change is definitely here on Palau.
In his State of the Republic Address last month, Whipps mentioned climate change but how his office would continue to advocate to combat its impact on the lives of the people is not clear.
“We must not forget about climate change as well. Last month, we experienced unusually high tides that overwhelmed low-lying areas in Koror and Babeldaob. Last week, we were hit by Typhoon Surigae that caused major damages to our roads and utility infrastructure. A comprehensive damage assessment report is being finalized, which will provide us the information we need to continue the needed rehabilitation works,” he said.
Adding, “we are thankful that no lives were lost. Let us also take this time to express our appreciation to our friends and development partners – the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia for their immediate relief assistance right after the typhoon. These events are undoubtedly the result of climate change. We can expect to see more frequent and stronger natural hazards, including typhoons and droughts, as a result of this growing threat.”
In earlier interviews, President Whipps said Palau and the rest of Micronesian countries are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change and have taken the lead in climate change and ocean conservation talks on the international stage.
Palau hoped the same would continue and the Pacific Islands’ voice would be louder if Micronesia, which feels the most severe effects of climate change, takes the helm of the Pacific Islands Forum leadership.
This statement, the President stressed when asked by local reporters here on the issues of climate change impact in Palau and the Pacific.
“Micronesia is exerting outsized influence on climate change and leads in ocean conservation with outcomes and commitments comparable to big countries. We have some of the world’s strongest responses on Covid-19.
Is this not enough to show our merit? Do we not deserve respect,” Whipps said in a February op-ed published in the Guardian.
Non-governmental organisations in Palau continue to take be active in dealing with climate change. According to the Palau Climate change policy office, it will continue to advocate for the fight started by the previous government. It is also preparing for COP 26.
But while the position remains, the changing leadership might have other priorities in mind, like the travel bubble with Taiwan and the looming crisis brought about by COVID -19, but it doesn’t mean that the impacts of climate change should be put on the back burner.
Government should be putting into place policies focused on adapting to change rather than stopping it. You can’t stop sea level rise because it’s going to happen.
Palau has a voice on the international stage about reducing emissions, but Palau has to deal with the consequences of sea level rise, literally lapping at its doorstep and it is happening now, already impacting the lives of the people
Whether tropical storms spring out of nowhere, or tides are higher than predicted, the impact is here now and will only get worse.
Government needs to start thinking about areas or communities prone to flooding, think of the most vulnerable people.
How many decades now are we listening to the sound of world leaders kicking the cans down the road? Palau’s duty is to show the previously unseen impact of climate change.
The prediction of scientists is coming true. It’s time to act, not talk, it’s time to lead by example.
What choice does Palau have but to act?
Bernadette Carreon is a Palau- based journalist covering the nation and the Pacific for over 20 years.
This article has been written for the Road to COP26 series for the Climate Action Beacon.