Climate change magnifies existing challenges in the Pacific

Over 120 Pacific health leaders, directors of water resources and climate change departments, health practitioners and academics came together for the Pacific Health Governance Workshop at The University of Queensland on 15-16 February to discuss issues facing the region. Opening with a moving Welcome to Country by Aunty Kerry Charlton to her 'Pacific brothers, sisters and cousins', the workshop focussed on Knowledge Translation for SDG Implementation.

Dr Tukuitonga, Director General of the Pacific Community (SPC), gave a scene-setting keynote address to open the program. Whilst the overall health of people in the Pacific is improving, this is slower than the rest of the world and the gap is widening, particularly in Melanesia. Health MDGs were not achieved by many Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and there is the risk of this happening with the SDGs. Being a specialist in non-communicable diseases (NCD), Dr Tukuitonga noted the NCD burden is increasing, with associated economic impacts as productive adults and their families are affected.

Speaking to sector priorities, Dr Tukuitonga warned against allowing health agendas to be driven by international trends and fads, particularly where those issues are not majority priorities for the region. Basic water provision has been has been neglected as fundamental to public health with only 52% of Oceania accessing basic water, whilst other issues posing less threat (such as avian influenza) have gained disproportiante attention.

A specific WASH and Climate Change workshop used a talanoa (Pacific story telling) method, an approach for inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. Many issues were raised and highlights include:

  • Sanitation and hygiene remain underemphasised relative to water. It is the role of academics and scientists to continue to present evidence and data to decision-makers in setting public policy agendas to keep these issues alive.
  • Climate change has a multiplier effect on already existing issues and risks, including health.
  • There are many positive stories of community preparedness and adaptation to climate change impacts, and it is important to capture and share these. The term ‘vulnerable’ is not helpful: it implies deficiencies and needs to justify external (Western) interventions.
  • Traditional beliefs about menstruation make it a taboo in PNG and elsewhere, impacting girls’ confidence and schooling.

Respect between researchers and Pacific Island communities is essential and there was a plea for higher ethical standards from researchers. There were emotional recounts of community leaders being consulted at their own expense, only to have findings never reported back, or worse, used for self-serving funding purposes by research organisations. 

Participants envisioned an alternative reality for the future of research partnerships led from the region where “the Pacific leads and Australia cheers”. 

Prepared by: Bronwyn Powell, Knowledge and Learning Manager, CS WASH Fund 
Photo: David Coulon, Live and Learn Vanuatu on Pacific Regional Learning Event field visit. Credit: FotoFusion/ CS WASH FMF