A Rising Sea Threatens Pacific Islands

New York – As world leaders gear up to spend the coming weeks in South Africa haggling over economically bearable cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already exacerbating environmental conditions and threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Pacific Islanders.

Diversity characterises the Pacific region, with its approximately 30,000 islands – of which 1,000 are considered to be populated – scattered across the world's largest ocean, which covers nearly a third of the earth's surface.

“Right now, sea level rise is a reality but also a phenomenon which currently occurs in millimetres each year,” pointed out John Silk, minister of foreign affairs of the Marshall Islands, at a conference in May at Columbia Law School in New York.

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“But the millimetres are turning into centimetres and there are inarguable risks of long-term sea level rise of a meter or much more.”

Long before small island states might find themselves submerged, another possible outcome of rising sea levels is that islands “are left barren, (or) uninhabitable”, reckoned Peniamina Leavai of the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Project (PACC).

The situation and living conditions of inhabitants of the Pacific Islands vary greatly across the region, as they are shaped by the financial resources' availability, geography, technology and the affluence of the population.

“The rate at which these affected areas become uninhabitable will also fall in a wide range, from already happening now, to happening in a couple of months, years, and in 20 years' time and more,” Leavai explained to IPS.

Yet environmental changes, accelerated by climate change, already severely affect the livelihoods of people in the Pacific.

“High tides are frequent and continue to wash away our shorelines,” said Council of Elders member Ursula Rakova, about the 2,700 families living on the Carteret islands, 86 kilometres away form Papua New Guinea's (PNG) main island Bougainville.

“Our biggest concern is that one fine day, a king tide will simply sweep over the islands and most or all people will be washed away without any trace,” she told IPS. Recently, one of the islands was divided in half by rising waters.

The islands, lying 1.2 metres above sea level, have lost a significant area of arable land in a traditional culture where people's livelihoods are based on fishing and harvesting seasonal crops, even as the population grows.

“The land is becoming less and less and the people find it harder to make gardens to sustain themselves,” Rakova said.

To address and adapt to the changed environmental conditions, the Council of the Elders developed and implemented what is called an autonomous adaption strategy by relocating and resettling their islanders in safer grounds.

Rakova founded the organisation Tulele Peisa, which means “sailing the waves on our own”, for this purpose. The organisation coordinates the relocation of the islanders to host communities.

Two families to date have resettled to PNG's Marau islands and the move of another eight families is planned. While the international community is responding positively to their cause, Rakova emphasised that the government's reaction remains “very slow and does not set its priorities right”.

“The PNG Government responded to our call in October 2007 with PGK 2 million [about 700,000 U.S. dollars at the time] to the Carteret's Relocation Program, and the Bougainville administration has not since that time given a penny of that money to our organisation to support us in building homes for the Carteret's families,” Rakova addeed.

Meanwhile, Tokelau, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands currently suffer from drought conditions constituting a state of emergency, say experts who have been working intensively for decades to confront negative consequences of climate-induced changes in the Pacific region.

They warn that the situation will only worsen if global climate policymaking follows a business-as-usual approach.

In Tuvalu, where groundwater is unsafe due to high salinity and pollution, the drinking water scarcity could be further aggravated. There, rainfall is primary natural source for reservoirs, while accelerated sea level rise could cause the intrusion of seawater.

This situation could easily result in social tensions between the affected population living on the main island, Funafuti, and islanders seeking drinking water who have migrated to Tuvalu's capital.

More extreme and unusually frequent weather events like cyclones or tidal surges, driven by accelerated sea level rise, cause coastal erosion and force people to move inland to find new sources of livelihood.

Samoa's coastlines, for example, have eroded from a few to 80 meters, and people have relocated inland where territory is already partitioned. Disputes over customary lands will likely intensify.

“Picture the waves going past your home five meters inland from the shore, every morning and evening… This isn't your mansion. These are simple thatched roof shelters, with the risk of snakes, wallabies and fire ants,” explained Leavai.

Traditional knowledge about winds, seasons, rain patterns, the time at which mangroves can be crossed and what kind of clouds to look out for have become unreliable for the population, due to developments induced by climate change.

Recently, in what was supposed to be monsoon season with typical knee-high flooding, some islands instead found themselves in a drought season.

“People were experiencing dust, pigs killing banana trees for the water in trunks, and being robbed of their already withering food gardens by their neighbours, while wallabies and pythons decided to go beyond the borders of the jungle and into human settlements searching for food and water,” described Leavai.

In the face of these changes, local and regional response strategies have been formulated over time, and policy and decision-makers have been provided with information from lessons learned on the ground.

But despite these very visible consequences of climate change in the Pacific, international development partners and donor countries have proven to be slow in increasing their efforts for finding a global solution for this global problem.