In Palau, a glancing blow from Typhoon Haiyan prompts a glance toward climate change

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston.
We've been focused on the ongoing disaster in the Philippines the last few days. Rightly so, as Filipinos are still struggling to cope with an unprecedented crisis. But other countries in the region also suffered at least glancing blows from typhoon Haiyan. One of them was a small Pacific island nation of Palau. The World's Ari Daniel happens to be in Palau this week, and I asked him about the damage there.

Ari Daniel: Really the area that was hardest hit by the typhoon was the northernmost part of Palau. Palau is a collection of hundreds of islands, and the northernmost island is Kayangel, which the typhoon eye passed within about five miles of. And so the heaviest damage was in that area and most of the houses there were destroyed. Roofs were blown off, there was a lot of damage in terms of terms of trees and branches coming down. And some people evacuated before the typhoon, and everyone was cleared out after the typhoon blew through. One saving grace was that, when the typhoon came, it was during low tide, and so the surge was much less than if it had been during high tide.

Werman: So has the government of Palau had to mount any sort of relief operation?

Daniel: Yeah, the government has responded and other Palauans have responded, and those reliefs are ongoing. Thankfully, nobody died, but there's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be repaired.

Werman: I gather it's pretty unusual for Palau to be hit by a storm like this, and despite the cautions of many scientists, the president of Palau is laying the blame squarely on changing conditions due to climate change. What makes it so patently clear to him?

Daniel: Well, this is actually the second typhoon to come incredibly close to Palau within the last 11 months. 11 months ago, a typhoon passed actually to the south of Palau, and that also really frightened people, and now this one. And so people are kind of observing this increased frequency over the very short term and they're wondering, "What's to blame?" And so some people are looking to blame climate change, including the president.

Werman: And you've been talking with Palauans about climate change and their concerns about the future. What have you been hearing, and how do they see climate change there?

Daniel: Well, you know, it's definitely a concern here. If sea level does rise, Palau is going to be hit pretty hard. And so climate change is a very large concern. In addition, the people of Palau really depend on the ocean. Their entire identity is woven in and around the ocean, and so that relationship is something that's historic and quite important. So when they think about climate change and sea level rise, it's definitely concerning them.
You know, I've spoken with a few different people about their views, and most are concerned about sea level rise, but some say it's not as big an issue as many think. They say they'll just move to a higher part of Palau if there is an issue. I spoke with one researcher who said, that even with several feet of sea level rise, still most of the islands would be fine, because there's a lot of higher elevation ground. But it's people that have land and grow crops near the shore that are concerned. In speaking with one person, she told me that, you know, there's a tradition here that people don't leave their island in case of an emergency. Because if they leave their island, there's the thought that they may come back to an island that's disappeared and may not be able to return. And so there were some, during this latest typhoon, that didn't leave for that reason. They were going to stay no matter what. And so she's of that opinion, too. She said that she will stay on Palau for as long as she needs to. Even if the seas rise, she said she will set up shop in a boat, because she's Palauan and she plans to stay here. But there were others who said they would move, and if conditions got worse that they would leave the country.

Werman: Ari, you're actually in Palau. Looking at coral, I'm just wondering, is it hard to process such an existential crisis like climate change in a place that, I presume, looks like paradise?

Daniel: You know, I've been spending the week with researchers that are studying these corals, and one of them told me that the way the timing worked out in the weather, she didn't even miss a single day of data collection due to the typhoon. The typhoon blew through here less than a week ago and life continues as usual. Most of Palau wasn't even affected. It's an incredibly beautiful place, the corals are just bursting with color and vitality. And so I think the only sign of a typhoon having passed through, that I've seen, was a lot of sediment that had gotten stirred up, and so it was harder to see down, to see the coral. That was the only impediment to kind of viewing this place as a paradise. Everything else is just magnificent.

Werman: The World's Ari Daniel, in the western Pacific nation of Palau. Thanks so much for your time, Ari.

Daniel: Thanks so much, Marco.