Following President Remengesau’s visit to Sonsorol and Hatohobei States in mid-November, he promised that the Southwest Islands will “not be left behind”. Now, in the final months of Remengesau’s administration, the National Government is supporting a series of development projects in Sonsorol, including a new water storage system, a solar power project, and a helicopter-landing site.
Due to its isolation, Sonsorol State, located 335 kilometers from Koror, faces a wide range of challenges, including limited access to medical supplies, educational and building materials, and power.
But Sonsorol State Governor Nicholas Aquino says that Sonsorol’s greatest need is a new water storage system.
Sonsorol has eight tanks, but they were built during the Japanese era, before World War II. The state of the tanks has brought into question the quality and safety of the water being used by the islands’ communities. According to the Governor, the tanks are currently “halfway underground, about four feet . . . with roots of trees getting through the cement”.
In response to Sonosorol State’s request for new water tanks, the National Government allocated grant money towards the restoration project. Right now, the Government is in the process of bidding out materials to interested companies, which include roofing, plaster, and another four inches of flooring to protect the water storage.
The government is also working to install a solar-power system in the Southwest Islands. A press release issued by the Office of the President following Remengesau’s visit states that “the Palau Energy Administration (PEA) of the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, Industries and Commerce (MPIIC) is committed to boost the islands’ solar power capacity, especially in the schools”. According to Governor Aquino, many of the homes on Sonsorol often go without power. Most of the eighteen houses on Sonsorol have their own generators. However, the carrier ships, which come roughly once every three months, can carry 270 gallons of fuel, which isn’t enough to power everyone’s homes in the intervals between ship arrivals.
To address this, the Governor says that he met with the President, his Cabinet, and representatives from Palau Public Utilities Corporation (PPUC) last week to discuss how to bring solar energy to the individual homes. The recommendation from PPUC is to power the entire island with renewable energy by installing a solar system for every house, rather than a centralized solar plant like the one which powers Kayangel.
The government is currently drawing up blueprints for every house on Sonsorol, in an effort to install solar panels. Governor Aquino said that the project, which is estimated to cost around $300 thousand, could empower each home to use at least four lightbulbs and a freezer.
Meanwhile, Sonsorol is also gaining the attention of another interested benefactor: the US military. In October, the US Embassy said that Sonsorol is “of strategic importance and ties into the overall strategy of the US defense of Palau”.
The US Embassy in Koror has already purchased a strip of land on Sonsorol and plans to buy more, an area allocated for helicopter landings where the US military can carry out drills. The helicopter-landing site is anticipated to be part of an ever-growing “counter-China” defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which includes a network of Pacific islands such as Okinawa and other islands in Japan’s waters.
President Remengesau has called the military funding development on Sonsorol a “win-win situation” for both Palau and the US.
Governor Aquino also sees the military initiative as a good thing for Sonsorol. According to the Governor, the presence of the military on the island has the potential to bring infrastructural development to Sonsorol, such as improvements to the road. During his visit in October, US Ambassador John Hennessy-Niland allegedly stressed that a helicopter on island could provide emergency evacuations for anyone who needs serious medical attention.
Other problems, however, are more difficult to address. As a group of four low-lying islands, the land is susceptible to damage from rising sea-levels. According to Governor Aquino, some parts of the islands, such as the east part of Sonsorol, have been cut off by rising tides.
“Before you could walk on the east beach, even though it’s high tide. Now you can’t,” said Governor Aquino. “We feel climate change here.”
Because the islands are so far removed from regular shipping routes, those living on Sonsorol are also much more dependent on natural resources, such as fish stocks, than most of the rest of Palau. Governor Aquino has said that in the past few years the fish populations around the islands have been getting low.
However, both President Remengesau and Governor Aquino have asserted that, within this year, this trend has shifted, and the number of fish in the waters of Sonsorol has increased, specifically yellowfin tuna. The President and the Governor both attribute this to the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS), which was implemented at the beginning of this year, and Sonsorol’s Pacific Area’s Network (PAN) site, which came into effect in October of last year.
“The [increase in yellowfins] is because the PNMS is working,” said President Remengesau last week.
Governor Aquino emphasized his desire that the government not change this conservation law, claiming that the absence of fishing in the area set aside for the sanctuary has increased fish stocks for the islands.
Sonsorol’s Protected Area around Merir Island was put into effect in October 2019, making Sonsorol the last State to join the PAN. Merir is said to be rich in marine and terrestrial wildlife, and includes a nesting site for green sea turtles. Governor Aquino is currently reviewing another site which he will submit to PAN for approval.