PCC CRE Program proposes solutions to rehabilitate agriculture industry after Bopha

By Nikita Espangel

The agricultural industry of Palau took quite a hit after Typhooon Bopha. The farming areas in the states of Ngaraard, Ngiwal, more about Melekeok, Peleliu and Angaur were located along the coasts. As a result, most were flooded with saltwater during storm surges common in tropical cyclones. 

According to agricultural expert Thomas Taro, head of Palau Community College’s Community Research Extension Program, soil samples currently reveal extremely high salinity levels in the soil. Most crops can survive levels of 35 parts per thousand. After Bopha tests conducted reveal salinity levels at 2,000 parts per thousand, “it’s as if one poured salt into the soil” leaving taro patches and most crops to rot.

Taro Patches starting to die
High saltwater content in taro patches cause them to rot

Initial assessments indicate $80,000 worth of taro was damaged. Taro says this figure is conservative as they are based only off of taro bought per pound from Yano’s Market.  This estimate does not include taro bought from individuals nor does it include packaged items made using taro as a key ingredient. These transactions aren’t necessarily monitored leaving the actual cost of damage probably around hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, other crops such as betel nut, bananas, and other fruits have not been assessed either possibly driving the agricultural damage estimate even higher.

Thomas Taro, head of PCC's Community Research Extension Program
Thomas Taro from PCC's Community Research Extension Program led a team to conduct assessments of Bopha's effect on agriculture

Taro’s team is still assessing the full extent of Bopha’s damage to agriculture. In the meantime, the team has devised some long and short-term solutions.

The long-term solution involves draining the flooded taro patches until salinity levels are low enough for crops to survive. This will take a while. Given the large tracts of land from all five states affected as well as the complexities of each one, the work required will be quite extensive. Some have natural drainage pathways currently in place, while others need to be created. The Bureau of Agriculture, under the BRC agricultural committee’s direction, will be conducting this work, because according to Thomas Taro “they have the tools and equipment necessary to undertake such projects.”

For a short- term solution, Thomas Taro says his team is currently incorporating current research under the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC). This program is funded by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) in member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum such as Palau. PACC’s goal is to help Pacific island countries devise adaptation methods to climate change’s various affects such as sea levels rising. Taro’s research in this area fits well with the effects of Bopha. Higher salinity levels present in the flooded taro patches are similar to what they would be if sea levels were to rise. The CRE team has evaluated 70 varieties of taro to find which could withstand high salinity levels. The team found four, and so in phase 2 of the program will now begin to plant such varieties, and if after nine months time, those varieties are capable of being replanted, they will be available for distribution.  At that point, provided a farmer has alternate land to plant these varieties, not only will CRE give farmers the seeds, but will also help farmers plant them to save costs on labor.

Patrick Tellei, head of the Bopha Relief Committee, has instructed Taro and his team to start planting the more resilient varieties of taro in each state on state owned property, with one farm per state by next Wednesday, January 2, 2013. If farmers do not own alternate land to grow such taro, they can simply request state offices to lease such land for this purpose. Farmers can use these alternate taro patches temporarily to grow their crops while they wait for the salinity levels in their current affected taro patches to lower enough to cultivate again. Agricultural experts point out this could take several years.

Since the newer more resilient variety of taro takes a period of nine months to grow, this still raises the question of food security and loss of income for that time period.

Currently, most farmers are surviving off of donations from Palau Red Cross Society and aid from relatives. Even though the Workforce Investment Act office has already set aside 55 temporary jobs to last for 6 months for such farmers affected, there is still the question of what will happen after the donations run out as well as the WIA temporary job initiatives. These are the issues farmers affected by Bopha will have to face in the months to come. 

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