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Republic of Palau

The Republic of Palau is the westernmost of the Micronesian nations, located relatively close to the Philippines and Indonesia [5]. Although formerly part of the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, in some ways Palau stands apart from its neighbor islands in the Caroline Archipelago, both culturally and politically. Palau was the bustling hub of Japan’s colonial Pacific empire in the early 20th century; in 1978 the nation chose to become independent rather than join the neighboring Federated States of Micronesia [1]; and to this day the people of Palau have maintained a version of the traditional indigenous religion known as Modekngei [5]. Political participation is also particularly strong in Palau; although the Compact of Free Association with the US was approved in 1986, it was not ratified until 1993 after eight referenda votes because of its unique anti-nuclear clause, which was strongly opposed by the US but repeatedly upheld by the Palauan voters [5].

In the last decade, major environmental problems and threats related to climate change have drastically increased in Palau. As a result of warming sea surface temperature in 1997 and 1998, a mass coral bleaching event occurred.  Approximately one-third of Palau’s corals died, with coral mortality as high as 90% in some areas [2]. This had severe, adverse impacts on the nation’s important marine tourism industry. Sea level rise in low-lying areas is a threat to coastal vegetation, agriculture, and the purity of the nation’s water supply [5]. Recognizing its dependence on climate sensitive sectors, Palau has participated in climate assessments and developed adaptation strategies to address risks, which have been used in national communications and international negotiations.  In addition, Palau has taken proactive conservation measures to protect coastal and marine resources, including implementing permit fees and visitor limits for frequented areas, placing a moratorium on mangrove clearing to protect coastal habitat, and developing marine protected areas to preserve fisheries habitat and resources [2,5].


Patch reef at North Babeldaob. (Source: Yimnang Golbuu)

The Republic of Palau is composed of six island groups, totaling more than 300 islands [1]. The geography of the archipelago consists of the main island group, which includes Babeldaob, Koror, Peleiu, Angaur, Kayangel, Ngeruangel, and the Rock Islands, as well as six isolated islands and atolls (Helen Reef, Tobi, Merir, Pulo Anna, Sonsorol, and Fana) to the southwest [2]. The total land area is 177 sq miles (458 sq kilometers) [1]. Babeldaob, the second largest island in Micronesia after Guam, is the biggest island in the Palauan chain [2]. The nation’s capital was recently moved to Melekeok State in Babeldaob, however the majority of the population is located on the former capital of Koror [5]. Geographically, the terrain varies from the high, mountainous main island of Babeldaob to low coral islands usually fringed by large barrier reefs [1]. Palau has the most diverse coral fauna in Micronesia, and the highest density of tropical marine habitats of comparable geographic areas around the world [5]. The island of Peleliu was the site of the Battle of Peleliu, one of the major battles during World War II. The uninhabited Rock Islands in the north are world-renowned for their exceptional snorkeling and scuba diving [1].


Palau has a tropical climate with an annual mean temperature of 83.0 °F (28.3 °C) and average humidity of 82%.  Rainfall can occur throughout the year, but most frequently between July and October [3].  Normal monthly precipitation exceeds 10 inches (254 mm), and in some years each month has received over 15 inches (381mm).  February, March, and April are the driest months of the year [4]. Winds are generally light to moderate, and the northeast trades prevail from December through March. During April, the frequency of the tradewinds decreases, and there is an increase in the frequency of easterly winds.  By May, the winds are predominantly from the southeast or northeast [4].  Palau is outside the typhoon belt and is therefore less likely to experience typhoons compared to other places in Micronesia; however, typhoons can happen from June to December [2].


The estimated population of Palau is 21,032 (July 2011) [1]. About two-thirds of the population lives in Koror, the primary urban center and former capital [5,6]. The main ethnicities are Palauan 69.9%, Filipino 15.3%, Chinese 4.9%, other Asian 2.4%, white 1.9%, Carolinian 1.4%, other Micronesian 1.1%, other or unspecified 3.2% (2000 census). English and Palauan (on most islands) are both official languages, with Palauan spoken by 64.7% of the population. The main religions are Roman Catholic 41.6%, Protestant 23.3%, Modekngei 8.8% (indigenous to Palau), Seventh-Day Adventist 5.3%, Jehovah’s Witness 0.9%, Latter-Day Saints 0.6%, other 3.1%, unspecified or none 16.4% (2000 census) [1].

History and Government

Rock Island Diving Permit.

The islands of Palau were originally settled approximately 3,000-4,000 years ago, by migrants traveling from Indonesia or the Philippines [1]. Traditional Palauan culture, as well as the Palauan language, are relatively unique within the region. Matrilineality is a key aspect of Palauan culture, and can be seen in most aspects of life. Traditional governmental structures remain quite strong, and Palau is one of the few places in Micronesia where a version of the indigenous religious system (called Modekngei) is still in place [5]. British traders began visiting regularly in the 18th century in order to trade, and in the 19th century Spain claimed much of the region, including Palau, as a colony. Following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain sold Palau and most of the Caroline Islands to Germany in 1899. Control passed to Japan in 1914 before World War I, and Koror became Japan’s regional urban center and a hub of industrial production. After World War II, control of Palau was passed to the United States under United Nations auspices in 1947 as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). Palau, along with the Marshall Islands, opted to split from the remaining TTPI states and become an independent nation in 1979. The newly-independent Palau government negotiated a Compact of Free Association with the US similar to that of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia in 1982, however the Compact wasn’t approved until 1994, six years later than those of the RMI and FSM. The point of contention was the Palau constitution’s anti-nuclear clause, which was unique in the region and unacceptable to the US government, who wanted access to Palau’s waters for its nuclear watercraft [5]. The modern Palauan government is a democratic republic with directly elected legislative and executive branches. The Council of Chiefs, representing the traditional government, is comprised of the highest traditional chiefs from each of the 16 states, and is an advisory body to the president [6].

Natural Resources and Economy

Scuba diving, one of the most popular tourism activities in Palau. (Source: GBRMPA)

The Palau economy consists primarily of tourism, subsistence agriculture, and fishing [1]. Tourism mainly centers on snorkeling and scuba diving on the nation’s barrier reefs and World War II wrecks, which are world-renowned [5]. Other natural resources include forests, minerals (especially gold), marine products, and deep seabed minerals. The government, which is the major workforce employer, also relies heavily on the US for financial assistance through the Compact of Free Association [1]. The GDP in 2009 was approximately $178.4 million, and the per capita GDP was almost $9,000, significantly higher than most other nations in Micronesia [6].  There are several areas of general environmental concern in Palau, including illegal fishing and overharvesting; inadequate facilities for disposal of solid waste in Koror, along with the handling of toxic waste from fertilizers and biocides; and extensive sand and coral dredging in the Palau lagoon [1, 5]. Palau also has a problem with inadequate water supply and limited arable agricultural land to support the size of the population. However, on the whole the environment in Palau is relatively pristine, and its unique attractions such as the Rock Islands and the Jellyfish Lake bring many foreign visitors and tourists every year [5].

Related Links
National Weather Service Koror Weather Service Office
Latest Seasonal Sea Level Forecast for Palau
Latest Seasonal Rainfall Forecast for Palau
Palau’s Rainfall Variations during ENSO
[1] Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ps.html, accessed July 10, 2012.
[2] Golbuu, Yimnang, Andrew Bauman, Jason Kuartei, and Steven Victor. The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of Palau,
ccma.nos.noaa.gov/ecosystems/coralreef/coral_report_2005/Palau_Ch17_C.pdf, accessed July 10, 2012.
[3] National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
[4] Shea, E., G. Dolcemascolo, C.L. Anderson, A. Barnston, C.P. Guard, M.P. Hamnett, S.T. Kubota, N. Lewis J. Loschnigg, & G. Meehl. 2001. Preparing for a Changing Climate: The Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for Pacific Islands. Honolulu: East-West Center, http://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/preparing-changing-climate-potential-consequences-climate-variability-and-change-execut, accessed July 11, 2012.
[5] Wikipedia, Palau, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palau, accessed July 10, 2012.
[6] US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/1840.htm, accessed July 10, 2012.
Republic of Palau


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