THE sight of several dug out wells greet us at Vatukola Village in Kakabona, northwest of Honiara in the Solomon Islands. It rains fairly often in Honiara and historically, fresh water has been plentiful. But in recent years, the wells, which once provided a ready source of water, have been mysteriously drying up.
Scientists from Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change have found that while drought, heavy rain and flooding occur naturally and involve many factors, these can be exacerbated by climate change.
They have also attributed the loss of water from the soil and plants to high temperatures caused by the changing climate.
On Guadalcanal, where Vatukola is situated, there is an average of 2177 mm (85.7 inches) of rainfall per year, or 181.4 mm (7.1 inches) per month. This is considered ample rainfall, but problems of water shortages in Honiara and nearby settlements persist.
Vatukola villagers are among the worst affected. They have been forced to find new sources of water. The sight of several wells, where one or two used to be sufficient, is a sign of their desperation.
The village chief, Michael Sarapidina, said it was not always this way. Once, their few wells provided an abundant source of water, but nowadays this community of about 500 people have to keep digging new wells.
Based on what he has seen, heard and experienced, Sarapidina is convinced that global warming is real and that it is affecting their environment.
“There has been a noticeable change in the weather over the past few years. This is affecting our livelihood. The heat from the sun has dried up the dams and water streams that once supplied our community.”
Scientists from ‘Climate Impacts on Water Resources’ have predicted that as temperatures rise, water quality will be affected and water reserves are likely to drop.
“You will see that all the families in our community are now using dug out wells since our water sources have dried up,” said Sarapidina.
“Now, even the water level in the wells are decreasing. We don’t know any other way to resolve this but to dig deeper to get to a water source,” he says, a hint of despair in his voice.
“If the wells continue to dry out, we will have bigger problems. I don’t know what we will do if that happens.”
Another factor Mr Sarapidina feels has led to the drought is the increasing number of logging operations in the area, which have seen the removal of trees from around their water sources.
Because of the apparent environmental damage, social problems and corruption caused by logging, it is seen as more of a curse, less as a blessing for the Solomon Islands, despite propping up the economy.
Last October, the international non-governmental organisation, Global Witness, reported that tropical timber across Solomon Islands was harvested on an unsustainable scale and that much of the activity was at high risk of being illegal.
The report noted timber exports reached more than three million cubic in 2017, 19 times the estimated annual sustainable harvest, with 82 per cent of exports headed for China. The Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Finance has suggested that continued logging at current levels would see the country’s natural forests would exhausted by 2036.
Sarapidina is deeply worried by such trends.
“Without the trees, the heat of the sun falls directly on to our water sources, our soil and lands,” said Sarapidina.
“Logging could be the reason for the lack of water and also for the dirty quality of our water.”
Sarapidina said food security was another concern. Hotter conditions and a noticeable rise in the sea levels had made it challenging to plant, especially near the coast, he said.
“It is almost impossible to grow food in the coastal area so we’ve have to move inland where our gardens yield better produce since it is cooler. Because of the heat, our kumara and cassava gardens cannot a produce good harvest. This also affects our income,” he said.
The community had turned to selling betel nut to make up for the lost income. Sarapidina said betel nut grows anywhere, under any conditions.
But there are longstanding concerns the use betel nut as a stimulant due to serious health problems, such as oral cancer.
Once consumed in traditional ceremonies by adults, betel is nowadays consumed daily and affects all age groups. It has been commercialised and appears to be a major source of income for most households in Honiara.
Sarapidina said that besides, water wells, some rivers also appear to be drying up. Fifteen minutes’ drive from Vatukola Village is the Boneghe River. We came across Anna Madi washing her clothes by the riverside, with her granddaughter, Erica.
Anna, a long-term residence of a nearby village, believes the river is now half the size of what it used to be.
“We use the river to bathe and fish but it has shrunk,” she says. Like most people in her community, she believes logging is to blame.
“During the rainy season, floodwaters inundate the area, destroying our gardens,” she said.
Vatukola villager Raygan Kasiano said a few logging companies were active in their area. He questioned whether the Ministry of Forestry had guidelines for logging companies to follow when crossing streams and rivers.
With no bridges he has observed loggers dragging and pulling logs through the streams and rivers, which he believes is destructive. He blames this practice for muddiness of their once clear streams.
“The natural appearance of our rivers is gone,” he said.
Raygan says the community feels powerless against the loggers. He is sad that their cries are falling on deaf ears and their concerns ignored.
“If the government had genuine concerns, it would be carrying out reforestation rebuild the environment that has been destroyed by logging,” he said.
The Under Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology, Chanel Iroi admitted that “we have depended on extractive industries for a while now. When people hear the word Ministry of Forestry, they think about logging”.
However, he said a lot of good work had been done by the ministry in reforesting areas that had been logged.
“Reforestation is an important programme within the ministry with substantial government funding,” he said.
The ministry was implementing the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Plus programme”. This is based on creating a financial value for the carbon stored in forests.
Developing countries are given financial incentives to preserve forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.
“This program is helping us to see how our forests can be managed and how we can benefit from it,” said Iroi.
While the ministry’s efforts are commendable, the villagers are understandably skeptical give the sheer scale of the problems they are facing — from wells and rivers drying up, to their gardens producing far less, and the logging companies apparently operating with impunity.
There are signs that water shortages are getting worse. For a few weeks in May and June, this year, the Solomon Islands Water Authority closed the supply from the Kongulai catchment, which serves about 60 per cent of Honiara’s population.
The closure was forced due to sediments in the water from a logging operation upstream. This incident raised alarm bells throughout the main island. Whether it will lead to improvements remains to be seen.