A village in the Solomon Islands. Photo by: Wade Fairley / WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND

As both COVID-19 and climate change make rural living more difficult in many parts of the Pacific region, British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands and Nauru Brian Jones said it poses further dangers to the country’s environment. Satellite technology could, however, provide some support.

“With travel restricted, more challenging environmental conditions for growing subsistence crops, and with the promise of the tourism sector now probably a distant dream rather than a more realistic short-term reality … it's much more difficult to live in rural areas,” Jones explained.

According to the World Bank, the Oceanian nation’s rural population sits at over 75%. And the top industries include tuna fishing, mining, and timber.

But when people are desperate for income — perhaps as a result of COVID-19’s impacts on the country’s tourism and associated livelihoods — they’re more likely to sell their rights to the environment to “unscrupulous extractive industries” at a lower rate, Jones said. If not done with due consideration, this could speed up the effects of climate change on those communities by enhancing soil erosion, enhancing the turbidity of water around those islands, and damaging coral reefs and fish, he added.

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But satellite technology in its ability to provide data on more hard-to-reach, rural locations, could allow policymakers to take action to better protect the environment and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

“It's a real opportunity to get around the tyranny of isolation and the tyranny of distance here and to be able to use space based technology to inform land-based decision making and mitigation,” Jones said.

In an interview, he detailed the toll both threats are having on the Solomon Islands and the ways in which satellite technology is already being used to mitigate the effects.

 “Knowing that higher rainfall is likely this year, farmers can be warned so that they can plant different crops and put in place different mitigation measures to protect those crops as well.”

— Brian Jones, British high commissioner to the Solomon Islands and Nauru

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe the effects of climate change on the Solomon Islands as a nation and what action is it forcing residents to take?

The dry seasons are becoming longer and hotter. This causes the scorching of young crops and problems for those islanders in growing their subsistence agricultural crops. That's resulted in a real decline in food availability on those particularly remote islands.

Elsewhere … there is the stunting of coconut trees. In some areas of the Malaita outer islands, including Ontung Java, the tides are higher seasonally and this results in saltwater inundation of the low lying areas around the coast and the repeated washing in of saltwater.

Contamination of the ground stunts the growth of the coconut trees. They don't fruit as easily and the trees become shorter and less productive. Coconuts are really at the heart of island life and diet in many of the smaller islands around the Solomons so the loss of productive coconuts as a crop really affects their diet, food availability, and variety.

Some of the very small islands are also about to become uninhabitable. The limited groundwater and freshwater sources have become contaminated and brackish as seawater seeps into those aquifers. With the absence of any drinkable fresh water on the islands, they become untenable. In some places, certainly around the distant province of Temotu, we've seen people having to move out of those islands to neighboring islands.

The other two aspects I draw on is the increasing prevalence of viruses such as African swine fever and bird flu that cause [restrictions on] the agricultural practices … and the increasing scourge of the coconut rhinoceros beetle recently — a particularly nasty beetle that burrows down into the heart of the coconut tree and its larva destroys the very center of the coconut palm, which can devastate that crop.

How do the effects of climate change impact the people of the Solomon Islands?

Generally speaking, Solomon Islands is similar to other Pacific islands in the sense that because of its geographical location, it’s vulnerable to a whole range of natural disasters.

These natural hazards of rainfall, cyclones, and earthquakes mean that the population is vulnerable and sometimes bounces from crisis to crisis. People have had, for centuries, natural and traditional ways of coping with these catastrophes, including by growing and storing foods that are more hardy, and can be dried and stored to provide sustenance during the times when you're recovering from your fresh fruits and vegetables being washed away after a cyclone.

But the problem with climate change is that the issues of salination, longer dry seasons, and scorching means that natural mitigation measures of growing a variety of cyclone-proof and rainproof crops make it more difficult to maintain these traditional methods. So what we see overall is a decline in food security as a result of this continuous vulnerability and a slow erosion of the coping mechanisms.

In some ways, the more difficult it gets to sustain food production and crops on the remote islands, the more attractive it is to move into the urbanized areas. This has two effects. One is that — as the younger generations move away from the distant islands and move away from agricultural subsistence living — those traditional methods of coping and knowledge that goes with that also declines.

Also, once you have that urbanization, people are no longer able in the urban areas to grow crops to sustain their life. so they depend on cash in order to fund the purchasing of imported foods … When people become dependent on a cash income, we see them making different choices … opting for cash in return for logging rights and the rights to cut down some of the forest across Solomon Islands.

“Satellite remote sensing can also help in identifying some of the patterns of behavior of ships and tuna fisheries. They could also help identify ... where there is actually no permission in place for logging.”

What role do you think technology, including satellite remote sensing technology, can play in building climate resilience and tackling COVID-19?

The really exciting thing about using data from satellite remote sensing as well as other space-based data assets is that it gives policymakers the ability to look at a number of data sets that were previously very difficult to get. Getting out to look at some of the distant provinces can take days by ship and can be very expensive and unreliable by air.

Satellite imagery and satellite remote sensing can gather and compare data sets to look at differing vegetation patterns, weather patterns, and sea surface temperatures. By comparing these datasets with local knowledge, we can look at areas which might be too sensitive, for example, to permit forestry and deforestation, and industry or areas where it would seriously benefit from maritime protected areas.

The exciting thing is that in bringing these data sets together … it gives those decision-makers the ability to make more informed choices and more environmentally conscious choices of what development and action they can take and also what protection and what mitigation measures they can put in place … [For example], knowing that higher rainfall is likely this year, farmers can be warned so that they can plant different crops and put in place different mitigation measures to protect those crops as well.

There's also an enforcement angle as well in that the authorities here have difficulty keeping up with illegal logging, fisheries. Satellite remote sensing can also help in identifying some of the patterns of behavior of ships and tuna fisheries. They could also help identify some of the areas that perhaps are being intensively logged where there is actually no permission in place for logging to take place.

With that information and that data — supported by satellite remote sensing — the enforcement agencies can then go and take action against the illegal and unauthorized unlicensed fisheries and illegal loggers.

How could some of these examples be scaled up to help more people?

We're just at the stage now with a CommonSensing project where we have a data cube in place and analytical software that can help compare different sets of space and ground-based data. We're going to be working with making some of the academic data available not only to the decision-makers, but to students in the Solomon Islands National University and University of the South Pacific.

Giving students access to this data as well as decision-makers enables a whole new generation of professionals to understand some of the complex interactions in their environment and understand the possibilities for innovation as well. This advanced GIS technology and data will encourage them to go into the field and use that and do further research so that we can understand more about how the environment interacts and how climate change is really affecting Solomon Islands.

Visit the Data for Development series for more coverage on practical ways that satellite data can be harnessed to support the work of development professionals and aid workers. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #DataForDev.

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