USP prepares Pacific communities to respond to climate change

The University of the South Pacific's Laucala campus in Fiji
The University of the South Pacific's Laucala campus in Fiji . . . a shining example of how, through education for sustainable development, research and scientific knowledge, Pacific Island nations can benefit for climate crisis action. Image: USP

By Kalinga Seneviratne in Suva

Right across the South Pacific region, communities are no longer living on idyllic islands — they are facing serious problems due to climate change, such as cyclones, rising sea levels, floods, landslides and soil erosion.

The University of the South Pacific (USP) is responding to the challenge. It is becoming a shining example of how, through education for sustainable development, research and scientific knowledge can be transmitted to island communities, by mobilising local alliances to assist people across the region.

Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change and Resilience Building (PACRES) is one such programme. Spearheaded by USP, it is connecting grassroots people to university research, and applying that knowledge in communities on a sustainable basis.

The main goal of the PACRES programme is to strengthen the abilities of Pacific Island countries to deal with climatic change challenges in various areas, including operations on the ground, institution building and sustainable financing.

“We normally deal with the people who are there because we want them to learn, and to use it,” the university’s PACRES project team leader Rahul Prasad told University World News. The initiative makes sure that education and training can be sustainable, “that it can be used over and over”.

Funded mainly by the European Union, the University of the South Pacific component of the project is implemented in partnership with three other regional partners — the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the Pacific Community and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Key result areas
The university plays a vital role in supporting three key result areas of the project, through training of youth for the Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiation process, developing curricula for training officials and community leaders on climate change issues, and focusing on ecosystem-based solutions that have been tested and implemented.

In the training of youth for the COP process, the university has over the past three years organised a number of workshops along with SPREP to educate young Pacific islanders on the science of climate change.

They are mainly postgraduate students working on climatic change areas who are given training before attending COP meetings and also post-COP sessions to find out the lessons learned.

“We collect the lessons learned so that when it comes to the next year we can use those lessons,” explained Prasad.

Student involvement in COP
Salote Nasalo, an indigenous Fijian, is a postgraduate student who was trained to take part in the COP process.

“I was able to be a back-stopper for COP25,” she told University World News.

“Back-stoppers are the ones who do research work to support the delegation between [daily] sessions.” As a Fijian citizen, she was part of the Fiji official delegation to the COP meetings.

Because of the pandemic restrictions, she also provided support online from Fiji to the delegation at the Glasgow COP26 meeting in 2021. She went to Egypt for COP27. Before going, the PACRES project trained the youth delegates, along with delegations from the Pacific, for a week.

“The COP has a lot of thematic areas — loss and damage, climate finance, adaptations and mitigation and coronavirus research. So the freedom of choice was given to students of their area of interest,” said Nasalo.

“We are postgraduate climate change students. We are well versed in the science, and we know what it is to be in our area of expertise, to be inputting to the negotiations” via delegates, said Nasalo.

Online programmes on climate change
The PACRES programme has also developed short online certificate programmes on various aspects of climatic change.

Prasad explained: “What we do is we design, we plan, we spread, we scale up implementation of adaptation. We normally focus on an ecosystem-based solution or nature-based solution, something that can be easily implemented within the five countries we have been working with.

“We go to the selected communities and then we conduct participatory needs analysis so that we understand what the needs are of the communities. Once we know the needs, it allows us to better plan the activities that suit their needs.”

Prasad added: “And then we also get the change agents that can represent that particular community.”

The change agents are trained, and are able to vocalise issues and information to communities. “Then we also determine needs for additional resilience competency models,” Prasad explained.

The five countries are Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste and Vanuatu.

Island examples
In Timor-Leste, for example, a PACRES programme incorporated a rights-based approach that centred on gender and social inclusion training, to empower marginalised groups to adapt to climatic change. The National Directorate for Climate Change was co-opted to carry this approach forward.

In Vanuatu, which has faced many cyclone-triggered climatic crises in recent years, PACRES worked closely with three key stakeholders, the Climate Change Department, Forestry Department and Department of Agriculture.

As Ruben Markward, campus director of the Emalus Campus of the USP in Vanuatu, noted: “We play a vital role in empowering and training our local stakeholders and community representatives.

“Our successful delivery, in collaboration with climatic change departments and partners, is critical for the long-term sustainability of projects.”

In the Solomon Islands, the PACRES team has established a proposal writing group within the Solomon Islands Conservation Advocacy Network, which is expected to play a vital role in assisting community-based organisations to secure funding to propel their projects forward and make the process sustainable.

A primary focus of the project has been to empower communities to take ownership of the project and its activities. The €12 million (US$13.2 million) funding for the project, from the European Union over four years, has come to an end and will be wound up by the end of December 2023.

Strengthened climate change curriculum
Prasad said the USP had also been able to strengthen its curriculum as part of PACRES project — in resilience, climate change, disaster risk management reporting, and the development of two online courses to support climate action.

“This was done through stakeholder consultation,” he pointed out. They have also funded four masters and one PhD scholarship. Prasad and Nasalo are two recipients of these.

Nasalo said that when she took up the scholarship, all she wanted to do was “finish the exams and earn the degree”. But being involved with PACRES has taken her beyond academic success. “This particular project contributed to the practical aspects of being a climatic change student,” she noted.

Prasad said: “All these activities that we have conducted, we make sure that it’s aligned to their country’s individual adaptation plan or mitigation plan or development plan. So the relevant ministries or the climate change units will take care of this in terms of sustainability.”

Meanwhile, Nasalo is now a full-time research assistant for the Pacific Ocean and Climatic Crisis Assessment research project at the USP, going around the region documenting Pacific community perspectives on climatic change for a major Pacific report to be launched by USP before the COP meeting in 2024.

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan-born journalist, media analyst and international communications specialist based in Sydney. He has been a consultant with the University of the South Pacific regional journalism programme for the past year. This article was first published by University World News and is republished with permission.

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