Community Support for Watershed Management Leads to Ridges to Reefs Protection in Palau


Palau, Micronesia

Rock Islands, Palau. © Stephanie Wear (TNC)

Rock Islands, Palau. © Stephanie Wear (TNC)

The challenge

Palau is located approximately 800 km east of the Philippines, and consists of a series of islands approximately 459 km2 in total size. Palau’s coral reefs are considered to be one of the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.” Located on the northeastern margin of the “coral triangle,” Palau’s coral reefs have both high species diversity and high habitat diversity. Palau’s reefs contain more than 350 species of hard corals, 200 species of soft corals, 300 species of sponges, 1,300 species of reef fish, and endangered species such as the dugong, saltwater crocodile, sea turtles, and giant clams. In addition to Palau’s diverse marine resources, it has the highest terrestrial biodiversity of all countries in Micronesia.

Coral bleaching during the 1998 bleaching event was as high as 90% at some sites, with average mortality reaching 30%. Following the bleaching event, the construction of a ring road around Babledaob Island (the largest Palauan Island) began. The road construction led to widespread clearing of forest and mangroves, causing soil erosion into rivers and coastal waterways that impacted seagrass beds and coral reefs. At the same time, Palauans started noticing declining coral reef health and fish stocks, and degraded quality of freshwater resources. Studies conducted by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) revealed that the degradation of reefs was a direct result of land-based sediments, which cause reduced coral cover, lower coral recruitment, and excessive growth of algae. Reefs in Airai Bay, a lagoon on the southeastern end of Babeldaob, were particularly affected by sediment.

Palau's coral reefs have both high species and high habitat diversity. Assessing the biodiversity of the area was a step in the development of the Protected Area Network. Photo © Paul Marshall

Palau’s coral reefs have both high species and high habitat diversity. Assessing the biodiversity of the area was a step in the development of the Protected Area Network. © Paul Marshall

Actions taken

Research on reefs that were impacted by bleaching and land-based sediments brought greater awareness of ecosystem connectivity, which shifted the conservation efforts in Palau to entire watershed areas. PICRC scientists presented their findings to communities in Babeldaob as evidence of the importance of terrestrial ecosystems in protecting coastal water quality and coral reef health. In response, community members lobbied the governing body of Airai state, the second-most populated state in Palau, to ban the clearing of mangroves, which act as important buffers between the marine environment and terrestrial runoff.

It has always been easy to captivate interest in marine conservation because of close connection of Palauans to fish that provide a source of protein to feed Palauan families. However, there has been a lag in terrestrial conservation efforts because of limited interest in conserving forests. As a result of research showing impacts of land clearing on soil erosion, water quality, and the subsequent impact on coastal marine environments, Palauans began to see the need to protect forests. However, the need was seen as important because of the threat to the marine environment. Not until the discussion was about protecting fresh water for water security was a strong connection between Palauans and the terrestrial system made. The recognition that surface water contributes to water security and does not respect political boundaries led traditional and elected leaders to come together to discuss how they could ensure water security for their communities. The creation of the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance (BWA) successfully merged the interests of communities, government agencies, conservation practitioners, and traditional leaders to protect entire watershed areas that ultimately protect the water source.

The creation of the BWA was an effort of young conservation practitioners who saw the need to conserve terrestrial systems. These young champions enlisted the guidance of Paramount Chief Reklai of Melekeok, who then inspired Chief Ngirturong of Ngermelnegui State, and the adjacent state. The two traditional Chiefs and the elected leaders of the two States established the largest terrestrial protected area that protects the water source for both States. After seeing the successes of this effort, other States began to join the Alliance and establish terrestrial protected areas within their States to protect water sources. Today, 9 of the 10 states in Babledaob are now a member of the Alliance.

How successful has it been?

Prior to the formation of the BWA and its conservation efforts, there was only one terrestrial protected area, Lake Ngardok. As a result of the efforts by BWA to raise awareness and assist local communities to establish terrestrial protected areas, there are now eight additional protected areas with a total coverage of 25.2 km2.

A major success of the the BWA was the signing of ‘Master Cooperative Agreements’ between several states on Babeldaob, which identify collective conservation goals and incentives for progress toward these goals. Other major outcomes include the establishment of new terrestrial protected areas and completion of several community-level land management plans. The BWA has also improved communication between local communities and government agencies and conservation organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Micronesia Conservation Trust (MCT), allowing for better coordination and streamlined assistance to meet local priorities.

The BWA was instrumental in engaging with 9 Babeldaob States through Conservation Action Planning (CAP), which identified important conservation targets, threats, and key strategies for addressing these threats. Through the efforts of the BWA and with support from The Nature Conservancy and the Palau Conservation Society, all these sites used the action plan that resulted from the CAP to draft and finalize management plans for these sites. This has allowed them to access funding from the Green Fee through the Protected Area Office and Protected Area Network Fund. The Alliance (now titled the Belau Watershed Alliance) continues to assist these sites, through working with various partners to build organizational and management capacity to manage these sites.

Lessons learned and recommendations

  • Relevance to livelihood—Conservation targets must be linked to quality of life with the focus shifted away from species and ecosystem conservation towards protecting community culture and way of life. This shift is significant in that the BWA found natural allies in the traditional chiefs who, despite the modern democratic government, are still widely recognized as stewards of all commonly shared resources and defenders of the Palauan culture and way of life.
  • Leadership —Identification of an individual who can act as project champion is key. The charismatic leadership of High Chief Reklai added credibility and authority to the BWA’s message and engaged the traditional leaders of other states to rise to the same challenge.
  • Relevant and sound science—Available and effective communication of sound scientific information is essential. The scientific data documenting the negative impacts of sediment on coral reef communities increased awareness in some and empowered many others by validating what they were already seeing on their reefs.
  • Awareness of social, cultural and political context—Palau, much like other small cultures in a modernizing world, has complex, sometimes subtle, but often intersecting social, cultural and political landscapes. Understanding and navigating through this complexity is not always given enough emphasis in conservation projects. In the case of the BWA, young local conservation practitioners who understood the science and the culture were able to communicate the scientific information and leverage community support.
  • Reducing/managing land based source of stress to the marine environment will help build resilience of the reefs through rapid recovery following major natural disturbances.
  • Healthy herbivore populations on the reefs will facilitate coral recovery through high recruitment and post recruitment survival.

Funding summary

The Nature Conservancy
The Wallis Foundation
Government of Palau (in kind)
Palau International Coral Reef Center (in kind)
German Lifeweb
NOAAUS Fish and Wildlife Service

Lead organizations

The Government of the Republic of Palau
Ministry of Resources and Development


The Nature Conservancy
Palau Automated Land and Resources Information System (PALARIS)
Other government offices: Bureau of Agriculture, Bureau of Marine Resources
Coral Reef Research Foundation
Palau International Coral Reef Center
Palau Conservation Society
Belau Watershed Alliance (BWA) (formerly the Babeldaob Watershed Alliance)


Biodiversity Planning for Palau’s Protected Areas Network, An Ecoregional Assessment (pdf)

Impacts of Riparian Forest Removal on Palauan Streams

Trapping of Fine Sediment in a Semi-enclosed Bay, Palau, Micronesia

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