Adapting to risk

Communities use GIS and GPS to assess climate risks in the Cook Islands

John Waugh
Mona Matepi
George de Romilly

A local NGO tested an innovative participatory mapping approach to help communities in the Cook Islands assess climate risks. The resulting maps highlighted vulnerable areas, allowing the communities to develop strategies to adapt to climate change.

Extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, long periods of drought, sea level rise and higher temperatures, lead to loss of soil fertility and land degradation, reducing food security in farming communities. The Cook Islands, like many small islands, are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. They comprise small land masses surrounded by ocean, and are located in a region prone to natural disasters.

With limited long-term meteorological data available, it is difficult to make accurate predictions on how climate change will affect the Cook Islands. However, there is consensus that the region is likely to experience more frequent extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, periods of extreme heat, an increase in cyclone intensity, increased climate variability and rise in sea levels.

Observations by Pacific Island communities indicate that predicted climate change effects are being experienced, and are causing considerable social, economic and environmental pressures. The ability of the communities to adapt to a changing climate is generally low, due to lack of information and awareness of the potential effects of changing weather patterns. Traditional natural resource management practices, however, still practiced in some parts of the Cook Islands, provide important tools for resilience in the face of environmental change.

In response to growing concerns about the possible effects of changing weather patterns, a local NGO, Te Rito Enua (TRE), tested the use of participatory GIS to assess climate vulnerability and adaptation planning in the Cook Islands. Together with the country’s government and with the support of the Asian Development Bank, TRE worked with four communities on the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

Both islands face similar problems of water shortages, deforestation and soil erosion as a result of climate change. Their terrain, however, is quite different. Rarotonga, the most populous island in the country, is mountainous, steep and heavily forested. Aitutaki is mainly atoll and lagoon, and so is flatter with some steeper land on the remains of the submerged volcano around which the atoll formed.

Training
The project began in 2010, and lasted 10 months. In that time, TER worked with the communities to develop the practical tools and skills necessary to produce their own specific climate risk analysis. The organisation gave training courses in participatory mapping, with components in vulnerability and risk assessment, climate models, GPS and GIS, and map interpretation.

Participants, mostly volunteers, came from a cross-section of the community demography, ranging from school-aged youth to elders, including community leaders, resource users and professional resource managers. As a result of the training, all participants had a basic knowledge of the methods to be employed in the project, which they used to collect data from the field, and record assets that could be included later on maps.

This data, which participants within their own frame of reference, helped them identify issues that could affect the vulnerability of individual households and their wider community. They looked at facilities such as energy provision, water supply, sanitation services, port facilities and even civil defence.

Important risks associated with climate change were identified through the assessment and mapping processes that were neither considered nor evident during national-level vulnerability assessments. One example is the waste management facilities situated near the pilot communities. Runoff from these landfill sites at times of heavy rain can adversely affect the adjoining aquatic ecosystems. The communities rely heavily on these vulnerable coastal resources for their livelihoods, and so future waste management solutions need to include these considerations at the early planning stages.

Additionally, the mapping information showed that disaster response shelters are often placed in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge inundation. Also, some households could experience a shortage of water as the climate changes, which will mean enhanced water conservation measures, such as developing programmes for better rainwater harvesting. Rarotonga in particular is dependent upon surface water supplies for domestic consumption and has suffered periodic water shortages in recent years as sources have dried up.

Another significant factor revealed by the project was the extent of invasive plant species in the environment. Observers had noticed that the watersheds of both Rarotonga and Aitutaki were infested with Cardiospermum grandiflorum (balloon vine), Merremia peltata (kurima), and Mikania micrantha (mile-a-minute weed).

Rising levels of carbon dioxide create conditions that promote the growth of such invasive plants, and because their spread is facilitated by cyclones, it appears likely that they will continue to thrive as the climate changes, with – as yet – unknown implications for biodiversity and for water security.

Available evidence shows that the species are having a devastating impact on the native vegetation and natural watershed systems. The implications for water supply in this already water-stressed country are not clear, but are a cause for concern.

Practical solutions

After the data collection phase, the project team integrated the information into existing government GIS files to highlight areas where a changing climate could potentially affect the environment. The resulting map layers were combined with information from a climate model commonly used for planning in the region. The new data were shared with the government to be integrated into their GIS database and made accessible to the National Environment Service, and relevant ministries.

Each community received a paper map, known as a ‘vulnerability atlas’, showing the information specific to their area. The project team also facilitated meetings to discuss the implications of the mapping and the surveying process, and to gauge community perceptions of climate change. These discussions identified the main risks and developed plans for priority actions. Each community set up a Climate Change and Disaster Committee to ensure the plans would be followed.

In some instances, the communities identified traditional practices, including organic farming and resource management methods, as having considerable value as adaptation measures to reduce the greatest climate change risks. One example was the traditional ra'ui system of resource allocation, which two communities identified as a way to improve the resilience of vulnerable water resources. Communities in Aitutaki also suggested promoting traditional building practices and styles, which could help mitigate the effects of the anticipated increase in extreme heat events.

Some community participants were initially sceptical about the project, because they felt that the government had already mapped everything that was important. However, once they were able to re-envision maps, and given access to mapping tools, the communities became enthusiastic. As one of the senior participants of the Aitutaki planning process observed, ‘I've lived on the island most of my life, and have today seen things I’ve never noticed before.’

Being able to participate in the production of maps that were explicitly for and about them gradually led to discussions on their social and physical environment that went well beyond the more obvious dimensions of climate change and climate adaptation. The discussions touched on deeper social issues such as cultural erosion, loss of language, unsustainable resource use, invasive species and out-migration.

Planning for climate adaptation became a way of framing the broader suite of development issues. Because of this, the communities were able to take ownership of mapping their environment and the assets within it that are important to their identity and survival.

The project showed that a community-based participatory approach is a valuable tool for bringing the reality of climate change to bear at the local and household level. A process of discussing, debating, and problem solving produces more resilient communities that are more able to organise themselves and prepare for a changing climate.

Not only does participatory mapping provide communities with tangible evidence of the risks associated with climate change, but the community mapping process also highlights behavioural and development issues that affect the vulnerability of individual households and the community at large.

There was a discernable sense of empowerment by participating communities in developing vulnerability maps and having them available. Without exception, all the pilot communities requested printed copies of the vulnerability atlases for display in public places to engender support for change and implementation of their proposed action plans.

All-inclusive
Measures to build upon this project would include using the existing capacity as an emerging centre of excellence. The centre’s prime role would be to educate trainers to improve the ability of community mapping practitioners to convey techniques and best practices to other communities.

To overcome the bottleneck in trained personnel, and the high costs of using commercial products, the training of young and motivated community members in open source GIS products, such as Q-GIS, will make the adoption of this technology for community mapping possible. A regional facility to build capacity for community mapping and access to remote sensing analysis will go far towards helping Pacific island communities to adapt to climate change.

The project found that the participatory processes generated local knowledge unavailable to high-level planners. The process also generated a strong sense of ownership of the outcomes by communities, and increased the knowledge and awareness of participants about climate change risks and the implications for their families and communities. Finally, it increased the skills needed to develop more communities that are more resilient.

This approach allows adaptation strategies to be developed from the bottom-up – from the family through to the community, island and eventually the national level – at the same time as the national strategy is developed from the top down.

It should be noted, of course, that a community-based approach is no substitute for a technically rigorous national approach to climate change. Some important technical issues lie outside the competency of communities, and the scale can be too great; a patchwork of community approaches could potentially result in the geographic division of responsibilities that require a more unified approach. For example, ecosystem-based approaches require interventions at ecosystem scales.

However, it is also clear that the communities are not fully engaged on the realities of climate change. This is clearly an issue of environmental awareness and ownership. Climate change issues have so far been the 'government's role' in the eyes of many communities, largely due to government officials being the ones engaged in the climate debate and conducting climate change vulnerability and adaptation activities.

Linking the national efforts to local communities, therefore, is best demonstrated through the community-based approach of site-specific adaptation planning. Adaptation thus becomes everyone’s business.

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John Waugh is an independent consultant on environmental strategies and planning, and science adviser to Te Rito Enua.
Mona Matepi is the executive director of Te Rito Enua.
George de Romilly is an expert on climate policy and programme development and is a policy and legal adviser to Te Rito Enua.

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Examples of priority actions identified by the communities

Matavera, Rarotonga
Relocate emergency shelters inland.
Reduce vulnerable housing through relocation, home improvements, and pairing with householders with secure housing for emergency relocation.
Establishment of a ra’ui (traditional resource allocation system) in the coastal zone to protect vulnerable resources and increase resilience.
Convert household septic systems into a waste treatment system for the community.
Encourage water conservation and rainwater housing.
Control and/or eradicate alien invasive species.

Arutanga-Ureia, Aitutaki
Discourage building in vulnerable areas.
Establish a community-partnering programme to provide safe shelter for those in the most vulnerable homes.
Amend building code and encourage new construction to higher standards.
Establish community micro-finance or insurance to assist homeowners affected by extreme weather, and develop a reinsurance scheme for vulnerable businesses.
Raise public awareness of the need to build resilient homes.
Establish natural defences along the coast including through ecological restoration. Establish community cleanup work details (tutaka) to control areas of stagnant water.

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Related links

PGIS training

PGIS on Vimeo

29 November 2011

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)