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Tides of change: Palau calls on big brothers and sisters in the global effort against climate change

KOROR, Palau: Undiscriminating, unrelenting, unstoppable.

It slices through swathes of land, carves out crevices, and finds only weakness.

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It hammers on doors, cleans out homes, and finds only loss.

“(Typhoon) Bopha brought very strong wind,” recalled Palau resident Isabella Yano of the 2012 storm. “The water flowed under our house as we had elevated it with posts. But underneath it, we had put washer, dryer and freezer… They floated away.”

Facing the force of the category five super typhoon, others were not so lucky.

“Because their houses were near the water, some broke (apart) and some floated away,” Mdm Yano added. “We were also scared of the sea because the tide is always coming up … The sea water (was) coming up so we plan to move our house up here.”

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Less than a year later, Typhoon Bopha was followed by Typhoon Haiyan – which ravaged other parts of Palau.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Palau lies outside the typhoon zone, meaning it is supposed to bear less of the brunt of such storms.

But with the increasing ferocity of these typhoons coupled with rising sea levels and increasing ocean temperatures, it is clear the island nation now stands on the frontline of climate change, said President Tommy Remengesau.

Given the proximity of the ocean to homes, typhoons could cause serious damage in Palau. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

READ: Rising sea levels threaten homes on pristine paradise of Palau

READ: Palau calls on big brothers and sisters in the global effort against climate change

And he is calling on others to join the battle.

“To solve the problem, it cannot be an individual effort, it's got to be a collective worldwide effort, international effort and it's got to be solved by the people who contribute the most to the problem,” he explained.

“We hope that the big brothers and sisters of the developed countries of the world will see that this is something that is a responsibility on all of us and everyone should do their part.”

What happens on the other side of the globe has serious consequences for Palau, said the country's ambassador to the United Nations Ngedikes Uludong, who is also the country's envoy for climate change.

Palau's ambassador to the United Nations Ngedikes Uludong believes there is a need for Palau to encourage other nations to take climate change seriously. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

“When youre talking about climate change in a global context, just because were small and were here doesnt mean that we dont feel the impacts from the other side of the world,” she said.

“So if youre producing high carbon emissions on the other side of the world … on this side of the world, we feel the impact. So it behooves us to encourage the international community to take it seriously.”

TACKLING A MORAL ISSUE

Palau is punching above its weight when it comes to tackling climate change.

Just three years ago, it became one of the first nations in the world to ratify the Paris climate agreement. The agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A kayaker paddles upstream in the waters off Koror. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

The United States has since withdrawn from the pact, while Russia is yet to formally ratify it despite being one of the 197 countries who signed the agreement.

Said Mr Remengesau: “The developed nations of the world who contribute greatly to what causes climate change or what causes global warming, they need to look at this as a moral issue, as a world sustainable issue and really at least stick to the targets enunciated by the Paris Agreement.

“Even the Paris Agreement like you know, scientists have said that it doesn't go far enough but at least it's a start.”

There has also been a concerted switch towards the use of clean energy as the island nation aims to generate 45 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

An aerial view of some of Palau's islands. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

“We're definitely promoting renewable energy – even though we contribute the least to the causes of climate change,” said Mr Remengesau.

“We hope that by doing so, our developed partners at least understand that we're doing something in a small scale but we're addressing the very problem that developed countries are contributing to the emissions of harmful gases in the atmosphere.”

The island nation has also been active in conservation – setting up the worlds first national shark sanctuary a decade ago and in 2015, designating 80 per cent of its maritime territory as a fully protected marine reserve where activities such as fishing are not allowed to take place.

SAVING FOR A RAINY DAY

In the meantime, Palau has to come to grips with an unfamiliar reality.

Mr F. Umiich Sengebau, Palaus minister of natural resources, environment and tourism, believes climate change has altered local weather patterns. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

This has seen shifts in the weather and seasons, said Palaus minister of natural resources, environment and tourism Mr F. Umiich Sengebau.

“Fishermen understand the calendar that there are two seasons – basically, you have six months of easterly winds and six months of winds coming from the west,” he explained.

“Thats not very predictable nowadays … That unpredictability is certainly having an impact on the environment, so what the fishermen know in terms of seasons for fish and whatnot has also eroded over the years. When you ask them whens a good time to harvest these fish, they say: We dont know anymore”

For those involved in agriculture, there is now less of a delineation between planting and harvesting seasons.

“Its changing ecosystems to the point where the traditional knowledge will become less and less relevant,” added Mr Xavier Matsutaro, head of Palaus office of climate change.

And with the threat of intensified typhoons, the Palauan government has its work cut out.

“The typhoon impact is devastating because it kills the corals and destroys the structures. It flattens everything and it takes everything,” explained chief executive officer of the Palau International Coral Reef Centre Dr Yimnang Golbuu.

Dr Yimnang Golbuu believes Palau could see more extreme typhoons in the f

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