July 11, 2016

"Back to Our Backyards"

The Impact of Climate Change on Food and Water Security in American Samoa

Setting up an umu.

photo by: Nerelle Que

A row of five 55-gallon plastic drums line the edge of Peter Taliva’a’s home, each filled to the brim with fresh water. Peter has welcomed us out to his home on Aunu’u, a tiny island just a 30-minute boat ride from American Samoa’s most populous island, Tutuila.

We've come along with a group of scientists from the University of Hawaii who have come to run water quality tests on the island's wells. As they take samples, Peter talks to us about how important rainwater harvesting has become for the nearly 500 people living on the island.

“Anything that can hold water,” Peter tells us, “the people from the village, they fill it up. It’s a gift from God.”

There is little fresh water available on Aunu’u, and keeping saltwater from coming up through the island’s wells has been a problem for decades. Rainwater harvesting does seem to be working for people here, though as Peter notes, procuring larger cisterns has proved prohibitively expensive.

But Aunu’u’s residents aren’t only worried about collecting enough fresh water for daily use. They are increasingly concerned that seawater has begun to intrude further inland, threatening the taro that is grown across the island’s wetlands and consumed throughout the Samoan archipelago.

Ian Gurr, a horticulturalist at American Samoa Community College, recently found that the salt content of the water in Aunu’u’s wetlands was indeed much higher than expected.

“In the last several years, farmers have noticed that the taro on the east side of Aunu’u isn’t growing there. All the farmers say that before the taro grew all over that area,” Ian recounts. He tells us that during high tide, the farmers have noticed saltwater coming into the lagoon, and they believe the salinity is poisoning the crops.
A road on Aunu’u.

photo by: Eli Keene

A road on Aunu’u.

On Tutuila, too, some residents have also begun to think about what sea level rise and climate change might mean for food and water security in American Samoa. One such resident is William D. Pedro, a native of Swains Island, which was largely abandoned by its inhabitants in the late 2000s.

In his front yard, up a steep hill overlooking Tutuila's coastline, William serves us lemonade made from lemons grown in his backyard. A former fisheries biologist, William now manages a small plantation in his backyard with the help of his wife and what may be the territory’s only two trained dogs.

Part of what William sees threatening Tutuila mirrors Aunu’u’s concerns over taro. “Every time after the storm of the wind blows high…the winds carry the saltwater into the village, and it affects the plantation,” he tells us. “See some of the breadfruit down the road when you go back—the leaves start to dry out because of the saltwater.”

Many of William’s own taro plants have been dying early, a phenomenon he puts down to the extreme heat that many residents feel has begun to hang over the island more and more frequently.

“About 30 years ago, our plantation was really good and it grew healthy,” William says, “But now because of the weather changes because of the heat and the salt spray, it changes the crops.”
William D. Pedro speaks to Victoria in his front yard.

photo by: Eli Keene

William D. Pedro speaks to Victoria in his front yard.

Of course, a change in weather patterns is not always bad for crops. While William and many others around the island pointed us to sickly breadfruit trees, others noted that breadfruit had become more plentiful.

“A lot of farmers have said that the breadfruit is now fruiting all year round,” Ian tells us in his office at the Community College. “Now it seems that a lot of trees flower then fruit, and then there will be a repeat.”

Trends in crop growth are hard to track and harder to verify. But the consistency with which farmers in the territory highlight noticeable changes in the growing environment is jarring. On Aunu’u, Peter tells us that the farmers there do not know much about climate change as a global phenomenon, but that they all know that the environment around them is changing. “This is something we talk about every day,” he says. “Any conversation we have, people always turn back to these changes.”

For Peter, it’s clear that an island of less than 500 people is not going to answer all of its own questions without some direction from the outside. “This is what I do for my island,” he says, as University of Hawaii scientists are collecting another sample. “I like to bring folks in to find out what’s going on—for example, with this drinking water.”

The island could use more outreach, he laments, and many of the programs that reach the territory don’t make it off of Tutuila. “We ask for assistance and we ask for education,” Peter says. “What’s our next step?”

For many, the next step forward is looking back to a time when American Samoans were more actively working their land. While outreach efforts from scientists like those testing water quality in Aunu’u can help explain and generate solutions to environmental changes happening today, some see real adaptation efforts starting with greater self-sufficiency.

William, like many of our interviewees, sees climate change as a threat that has only been exacerbated by American Samoa’s relatively newfound place in a globalized economy. Looking out at the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean from his front yard, it is easy to remember that the food in the island’s grocery stores has all traveled thousands of miles from its point of manufacture.

“Time will come that we’re going to go back to our backyards,” William says. “Because when the water rises and the weather is not good, the boat is not going to come in with supplies. At least in our backyard we have taro, we have banana, we can make palusami, we can survive.”

William’s wife brings out a plate of buns, which they had baked in a traditional stone oven behind their house. “We baked them yesterday,” he says. “I tell people, this is how we’re going to do it. There’s no more cash, there’s no more electricity, but we can bake. Because this weather change—there’s going to be a lot more coming. This is just the start.”

By: Eli Keene and Victoria Herrmann

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