Palau is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, situated 800 km east of the Philippines. In 1947, following World War II, Palau passed formally to the United States under United Nations auspices as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Four of the Trust Territory districts formed a single federated Micronesian state in 1979, but the districts of Palau and the Marshall Islands declined to participate. Palau opted instead for independent status in 1978 and approved a new constitution and became the Republic of Palau in 1981. A Compact of Free Association with the United States was approved in 1986 but not ratified until 1993. It was put into force the following year, making it one of the world’s youngest and smallest sovereign states. Under the Compact, the American military has been granted access to the islands for 50 years. The role of the US Navy is quite minimal, limited to a handful of construction engineers but the US Coast Guard does have a stronger presence in patrolling the waters.
Occupying an area of just 459 km2, Palau is divided into sixteen states. The most populous islands are Angaur, Babeldaob, Koror and Peleliu. The latter three lie together within the same barrier reef, while Angaur is an oceanic island several miles to the south. About two-thirds of the population live in the city of Koror on Koror Island. The capital, however, relocated in 2006 from Koror to a newly constructed complex in Melekeok state on the island of Babeldaob. The coral atoll of Kayangel is situated north of these islands, while the uninhabited Rock Islands are situated to the west of the main island group. Comprising over 200 rounded knobs of limestone covered in verdant greenery, the Rock Islands (known locally as Chalbacheb) are the reason why most travelers come to Palau. A remote group of six islands, known as the Southwest Islands, some 604 km from the main islands, are also part of the country and make up the states of Hatohobei and Sonsorol.
Palau's economy consists primarily of tourism, subsistence agriculture, tuna fishing, garment making and craft items from shell, wood and pearls. The government is the major employer of the work force, relying heavily on financial assistance from the US. The total population of Palau is approximately 21,000, of whom 70% are native Palauans, who are of mixed Melanesian, Micronesian and Austronesian descent. Many Palauans also have some Asian ancestry, which is the result of intermarriage between settlers and Palauans between the 19th and 20th centuries. Palauan society, much like the island's language, has always been one unique to the island and its people. A very noticeable aspect of Palauan society is that it follows a very strict matrilineal system. Matrilineal practices are seen in nearly every aspect of Palauan traditions, especially in funeral, marriage, inheritance, and the passing of traditional titles.
Renewable Energy & Eco Housing
Palau is one of the highest per-capita energy users of the Pacific Island countries. The electrification rate is near 100% and is provided by the state-owned Palau Public Utilities Corporation (PPUC) except on the outer islands, which have no access to electricity. The installed capacity through the PPUC in 2008 was 33.5 MW although many commercial and industrial users also had generators producing an additional 10 to 25 MW. Until a 100kWp grid-connected PV system was installed on top of car park shading at the Capitol Complex and became operational in December 2008, the only primary source of energy for power generation was diesel fuel.
Palau has had some experience with renewable energy, mostly with off-grid PV technology. In 2001, solar home systems were installed in the outer island states of Sonsorol and Tobi. However, these systems have since failed due to poor technical design and an absence of an institutional framework for maintenance. PV-powered navigation lights were installed at docks in Babeldaob to aid marine navigation before the Compact Road was completed and electricity provided to the entire island. These systems are no longer operational as they have not been maintained once they were no longer needed. Wind and woody biomass pilot projects have been implemented in the 1980s but were unsuccessful. Some hotels have recently turned to solar water heaters to provide hot water, although this was done of their own initiative rather than as part of a wider national project.
The European Commission and Palau Energy Office finalized an National Energy Efficiency Action Plan in 2008 to reduce the country’s appetite for diesel. This plan included incentives to purchase digesters for pig waste to augment the Bureau of Agriculture's biogasification pilot program to produce biodiesel as an alternative fuel that could be manufactured locally. Also in 2008, six Pacific Island nations joined IUCN’s Energy Programme in Oceania to develop innovative practical projects. The one for Palau focused on the promotion of energy efficiency and investment in new energy efficient homes.
In 2009 two new solar projects were completed at the national hospital and state recycling centre in Koror. The PPUC created a Renewable Energy Division in 2010 tasked with the responsibility of managing current PV systems and pursuing new renewable energy platforms. This is consistent with Palau’s National Energy Policy, which identifies a target of 30% reduction in overall national energy consumption by the year 2020 and a minimum of 20% of electrical energy generated by renewable energy by the end of 2020. In 2010 solar streetlights were installed at intersections along the Compact Road that circles the main island of Babeldaob to improve the safety of driving. In December 2011 Palau international airport switched on a 226kW solar panel array, supplied by Kyocera Corporation and funded by the Japanese government’s Official Development Assistance. This solar farm is made up of 1,080 Kyocera 210 watt solar modules. Kyocera estimates the system will generate 250 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, avoiding approximately 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. The solar panels are also acting as a shade structure; having been installed in the airport's parking lot. Due to the prevalence of cyclones in the region, the back of the modules have been reinforced with extra support to increase wind-pressure resistance.
A major new initiative spearheaded by the President is Green Energy Micronesia. This collaborative effort to reduce (and eventually eliminate) petroleum dependency in the U.S. affiliated sub-region – Palau, FSM,, RMI, Guam and CNMI – aims to create a sub-regional mechanism for channeling technical and financial resources to countries for achieving the goal of energy independence.
Waste Minimisation & Recycling
Palau has increasingly become a consumption oriented society and as a result waste management is a pressing concern. With assistance from Japan and SOPAC among other partners, the old public dump at M-Dock in Koror has been transformed into a well managed landfill, although one that is rapidly running out of space. Following eight years of effort, a new landfill site has been identified in Babeldaob. Work must begin urgently to secure and develop this site in order to facilitate early closure of the Koror site and other public dumps on Babeldaob. Efforts are also being made to lower the volume of waste generated through a nationwide Reduce, Reuse, Recycle initiative and to find sustainable solutions to the problems posed by hazardous chemical wastes. While systems are in place to deal with pesticides, batteries and oil there are a whole range of other hazardous consumer products now going into the landfill that need to be properly managed.
Water Management & Security
With 150 inches of rain per year, the high island of Babeldaob is Palau’s biggest and best source for freshwater. There is an extensive network of rivers and streams with a combined discharge of 500 million gallons daily. Containing Palau’s only two freshwater lakes – Lake Ngardok and Ngerkall Pond – as well as 16 watersheds, Babeldaob provides most of the drinking water for a vast majority of Palau’s people. Four million gallons of water are pumped daily from the Ngirikiil and Ngerimel rivers to serve the populations of Koror and Airai (80% of the Palau’s population). The Koror-Airai treatment and reticulation system is managed by the national government. When recent development projects started to damage the watershed a grassroots conservation network of island communities, the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance, was formed and has been protecting and restoring these freshwater resources.
Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production
The traditional agriculture system in Palau is broadly similar to those found elsewhere in Oceania. Female produced agricultural products together with male and female harvested marine and forest products provided a self-sufficient food system with in-built security against natural and economic disasters. Today remnants of the traditional system still remain. Virtually all mature rural Palauan women and many urban women produce some of their households food needs through cultivation of a garden or gardens (mainly taro and cassava). Typically a woman will have one or more taro gardens (wetland) and at least one dryland garden for cassava (other crops are grown in and around these primary crops, such as sweet potato, kangkum (a local spinach), banana, coconut, papaya, pineapple and others). Most crops produced in this informal economy are used for family food and customary exchange with only small amounts ever reaching the open market. Palau is unusual in the Pacific in that crops and livestock generated only about 2% of GDP in 1998. Since Palau cannot incorporate any economies of scale in agricultural production, the likelihood of significant increases in the sector are slim.
An important reason for the continuing decline of agriculture is that with few exceptions the cost of local production exceeds the cost of equivalent imported foods. This is especially true with staple crops - taro, tapioca and sweet potatoes - which cannot compete price-wise against imported rice. Other contributing factors include: the changing roles of and expanding opportunities for women, Palau’s traditional agriculturists; shortage of agricultural labour especially in the rural areas which are populated by the very old and the very young; changing attitudes among young Palauans who view agriculture as a livelihood option of ‘last resort’; land tenure disputes and limited access to prime agricultural land on Babeldaob; colonial policies in the post-WWII era favoring investment in urban Koror over rural development; recent investments in agriculture following western models of male-dominated mono-cropping over the traditional female-dominated agro-forestry systems; and fruit fly infestations which decreases production and has virtually eliminated agricultural export.
Available arable land in Palau is in excess of existing needs and those of the immediate future. There is considerable room for expanded production of vegetables and fruits to improve the nutrition of the population and to nurture an export industry. Palau Community College has a research and development station on Babeldaob. With a total land area of 25 acres, this facility is composed of multipurpose laboratories, green houses, rearing sheds, and a large experimental area to conduct various research projects. Currently there are designated areas for taro, cassava, sweet potato, cucumber, and ponds for the aquaculture of freshwater prawns. The Palau Organic Farm is by far the most commercial farm in Palau and operates at a loss each year. This company mainly grows vegetable crops, particularly Chinese cabbage and began a new venture into the commercial production of Palauan noni juice for local consumption and export.
Palau’s local food security, like many islands, is threatened by seawater intrusion and flooding. A cultural keystone species, taro, is the most important traditional starch in Palau. Taro gardens consist of an intricate system of plots irrigated by a network of water channels linked to freshwater streams, rivers and springs. Gardens located in wetland swamps near the mangroves are being impacted by sea level rise - especially a few days before and after a spring high tide. During these high tides, seawater intrudes into the gardens and damages the underground corms or modified stems. During intensive storms, flooding also damages these crops. Current efforts to adapt and mitigate these impacts include adding soil to elevate the gardens above sea level and designing channels with sluices that can be closed during periods of high tides. In some areas, the smaller taro varieties are being replaced by the giant taro, which is more salt tolerant. The Palau Community College is working with the local women to identify and propagate the more salt-tolerant species of smaller taro varieties to distribute for cultivation in Palau. Land-use planning that prioritizes good agroforestry lands for taro cultivation and the cultivation of fruit trees and medicinal plants is critical to mitigate the threats to food security.
Palau international airport provides scheduled direct flights to Guam, Manila, Seoul and Taipei and Delta Air Lines launched new direct flights to Tokyo-Narita in December 2010. In addition, the states of Angaur and Peleliu have regularly served international airports. Freight, military and holiday cruise ships often call at Malakal Harbor, on Malakal Island outside Koror. Transportation between islands mostly relies on private boats and domestic air services. Only Koror maintains a bus service.
Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing
Palauans are probably the most sociable and responsible people in Micronesia. They love a good acronym and you can see them everywhere on signs and billboards, like 'WAVE - Welcome All Visitors Enthusiastically'. The Palau Visitors Authority is responsible for marketing although the CBS reality television show Survivor probably helped to boost visitor numbers to the islands. Tourist activity focuses on scuba diving and snorkeling in the islands' rich marine environment. It features coral reefs, blue holes, wartime wrecks, hidden caves and tunnels, more than 60 vertical drop-offs and an astonishing spectrum of sea creatures. Palau Tours offers numerous activities and Dolphin Pacific has a major facility providing various environmental education programs. Besides undertaking marine research the Palau International Coral Reef Center also has as an aquarium that is open to visitors. Other attractions include the Belau National Museum and Etpison Musem.
On 1 November 2009 Palau introduced a Green Fee of US$15 to be paid as part of their US$35 departure tax payment for non-Palauan passport holders with the revenue raised going towards a trust fund which becomes part of the national budget appropriations for conserving and preserving protected areas. In less than a year US$1.3 million had been raised with funding applications for community conservation areas already approved. The Green Fee was increased to US$30 in 2012 and is committed to improving the water and sewerage system of Palau.
Biodiversity & Protected Areas
With over 10,000 species inventoried to date, it is little wonder that the international community takes a keen interest in helping Palau to preserve its unique biological resources and the ecosystems on which they depend. Palau has approximately 1,269 species and varieties of plants of which at least 200 are endemic. It has 141 bird species of which 8 are endemic, 40 freshwater fishes, 42 species of reptiles, 30 species of lizards, two species of amphibians and at least 5,000 species of terrestrial insects. Palau’s inland lakes also sustain a unique variety of stingless jellyfish. Their marine environment supports 400 species of hard corals, 300 species of soft corals, 300 species of sponges and nearly 1,500 varieties of reef fish. These waters are also home to endangered and vulnerable species like saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles, giant clams and the world’s most isolated population of dugong.
In 2011 the Palau Conservation Society published ‘State of Palau’s Birds 2010: A conservation guide for communities and policymakers’ together with a poster that highlighted the plight of the Micronesian Imperial Pigeon and Palau Fruit Dove – known locally as Belochel and Biib – which are culturally important birds that are in decline. The report provides information showing that hunting, fuelled by illegal consumption, is a major cause of these declines. Habitat degradation and destruction, alien invasive species, and climate changes are also causing population declines as was evidenced in earlier environmental overview and stock-take reports published in 2007/08.
There are also serious concerns for the marine environment, including illegal fishing with the use of dynamite, inadequate facilities for disposal of solid waste in Koror, and extensive sand and coral dredging in the Palau lagoon. Recognizing the value and vulnerability of their natural resources, communities throughout Palau have been instrumental in designating some 20 areas of land and water as specially managed conservation areas. This Protected Areas Network and has continued to expand with the introduction of the Green Fee and conservation efforts are now covering entire watershed areas as on Babeldaob. The Coral Reef Research Foundation has its own laboratory on Malakal Island in Koror. It conducts basic and applied marine research, with special emphasis on species diversity work, collection for biomedical screening, environmental monitoring and reef fish spawning biology.
On November 5, 2005, the then President of Palau, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. took the lead on a regional environmental initiative called the Micronesia Challenge, which would conserve 30% of near shore coastal waters and 20% of forest land by 2020. In addition to Palau, the initiative was joined by the Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. Together, this combined region represents nearly 5% of the marine area of the Pacific Ocean and 7% of its coastlines. Through the collaborative efforts of the participating governments backed by the Global Island Partnership, a postive start has been made toward achieving the 30-20 goal with Palau having already exceeded this target. Subsequently, the Micronesian Challenge has spawned a Caribbean Challenge and the Coral Triangle Initiative.
On September 25, 2009, President Johnson Toribiong announced at a meeting of the United Nations that Palau would create the world's first shark sanctuary and has banned all commercial shark fishing within its EEZ waters. He also requested a worldwide ban on fishing for sharks. The sanctuary protects about 600,000 square kilometres of ocean, a similar size to the country of France. In 2012 Palauan fisheries officials boarded and detained a Taiwanese fishing vessel suspected of illegal activities during a joint patrol with Greenpeace who are helping the country to both enforce fisheries regulations and bring illegal pirate fishing operations to justice.
Integrated Development Planning
In 1989, the United Nations recognized that small island nations have special development issues, including but by no means limited to climate change and sea level rise. To focus on these special issues, a Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States was convened in Barbados (1994). Attended by 125 nations and territories, including Palau as an observer, the conference produced the Barbados Plan of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island States. This plan was progressed by the Mauritius Strategy for Implementation adopted by a second global conference on small island states (2005). Together, the Barbados Plan and the Mauritius Strategy have provided the impetus for national and regional initiatives to reduce vulnerability and remove binding constraints to development while also leveraging bilateral and multilateral resources.
The Mauritius Strategy is broad-based. Its 20 chapters address a wide range of issues that have unique ramifications in the context of small islands. In 2009, the UN General Assembly called for a review of progress made in implementing the Mauritius Strategy. Besides regional reviews each small island developing state was asked to prepare a report outlining progress, challenges and future directions. This report for the Republic of Palau prepared by the Office of the Vice President in cooperation with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific was one of the most comprehensive. It recorded solid progress in addressing each of the issues highlighted in the Mauritius Strategy. Indeed, Palau is assuming a leadership role in the Pacific region through the Green Energy Micronesia initiative, Micronesian Challenge, establishing the world’s first shark sanctuary and leading the Organization of Tuna Exporting Countries. The latter is a bold and innovative bid for islanders to wrest control of their tuna resources, ensure their sustainable management, and obtain higher economic returns from sales in the lucrative world market.
With support from the Global Environment Fund, Palau is now implementing a Sustainable Land Management project working in partnership with resource owners and the scientific community to develop land use plans and planning structures that will achieve a workable balance among competing conservation, economic and social development objectives.
Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures
As is the case with many other Pacific island nations, a significant threat to Palau is rising sea levels, spurred on by global warming. Water coverage of low-lying areas is a threat to coastal vegetation, agriculture, and the purity of the nation's water supply. In 1997 and 1998, at least one third of Palau’s reefs were destroyed and most of their taro crops were also destroyed because of drought and extreme high tides. In 2006, representatives from government agencies and private organizations held a two day workshop to explore changing climate conditions and their impacts in Palau. Under the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change project Palau along with PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji began in 2008 to start implementing pilot projects on food security and food production. In 2010 a three-part project was started to gather primary research data concerning the impact of climate change on the public health of Palau’s citizens. In 2011, the Australian Government’s Pacific Climate Change Science Program published the most comprehensive report for the region including a country report for Palau and have trained staff at their national weather service office to use new computer-based climate science tools.
Rather paradoxically, whilst Palau is threatened by climate change it may soon be drilling for oil. Seismic tests in the 1970s indicated the presence of petroleum and the first exploration license was awarded by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1977. Geological studies have been underway since 1994 and a license was issued in January 2010 to drill test wells 13 miles offshore from the remote state of Kayangel. These were never dug but now President Johnson Toribiong is pushing for exploration, hopeful oil will bring cheaper fuel, jobs for Kayangel as well as revenue that would be used to make Palau a green economy. Many analysts question why the World Bank is helping Palau develop fossil fuel resources when the island’s very existence is threatened by the burning of them.