Linking Climate Change and Health in the Lower-Mortlock Islands

By Zag Puas - JULY 2017
Climate Change is a cutting-edge reality in the Lower Mortlocks. The rise in the sea level is one of the major consequences of climate change; it affects food production, water conservation and especially human health. In November 2016, a new partnership between US based organization- the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), the FSM Department of Health and Social Affairs (DHSA) and an indigenous Mortlockese, Zag Puas (PhD), formed a partnership to develop strategies to address the link between climate change and healthy life style. Food production and water conservation practices were adopted as top priorities in anticipation of the increasing incursion of salt water on farm land and fresh water wells. The extent of the project also calls for the sharing of ideas between the Mortlockese stake- holders, DHSA, ASTHO and the public at large.

The Lower Mortlocks is a collection of four islands, Lukunor, Oneop, Satowan and Ta. Lukunor and Oneop shared a lagoon, while Satowan and Ta are located on a separate lagoon. These islands communities suffer from lack of health care services due to their geographical distance from the major porttowns, for example, Weno and Pohnpei. Despite this, many of the low-lying atoll dwellers persist in living on their islands. This is despite the knowledge that one day their islands will not be able to sustain them, due to the anticipated rise in the sea level. Recent studies indicated that arable land will be overwhelmed by salt water within a fifty-year time frame. The islands’ elevation ranges from 3-4 metres above sea level. Because of their vulnerability, they are among the first to experience the ongoing and brutal reality of climate change induced sea level rise. Relocation will be the last option, however, a great number of the people have stated that it is not an option for them at all. For instance, during my field interviews, many Mortlockese cannot foresee living in an alternative environment, even if it is on another island, where they would be the subject to someone else’s dictates. They expressed a preference to remain in the Mortlocks and die, rather than to live in an alien space somewhere beyond the horizon.
However, to prolong their ability to remain living on the island in the face of climate change, providing appropriate health care in the communities, remains a major challenge. The above partnership is undertaking a project which seeks to enmesh traditional and outside knowledge to enhance a healthy life style in the age of climate change. Taro farming targeting specific species of taro that can withstand increased salinity in the soil, together with the construction of a low-cost water storage facilities, are the two of the strategies proposed as a way of promoting and maintaining a healthy life style in the Mortlocks. At this stage, the project has been progressing well in meeting its main objectives. ASTHO, the principal provider for the project, together with the FSM DHSA, and many prominent members of the public, have been very supportive of the project since communities on low-lying islands are often exposed to greater health challenges. The Mortlockese people wish to express their deep appreciation to the two major supporters and look forward to continue the partnership in light of the ongoing climate change induced health challenges as they arise in the future.