Don’t desert us, say sinking pacific islands

Climate chaos0

Don’t desert us, say sinking Pacific islands

Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor | July 30, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

THREE of Australia’s biggest non-government organisations are hosting competing visits by Pacific Islanders to urge Kevin Rudd to do more to combat climate change – and especially rising sea levels.

The delegations’ visits ahead of next week’s Pacific Islands Forum summit in Cairns, which the Prime Minister will host, come as Australian experts warn that although climate change does appear to be a factor in changes in sea levels, there are also many other reasons.

These include tectonic plate movements, El Ninos and the effects of fast-rising populations, including the use of groundwater and deforestation.

Experts predict that the sea around the Pacific islands will rise by about half a metre by the end of this century.

At this rate, Tuvalu – often cited as especially vulnerable to rising sea levels – would survive geographically for 1000 more years, although the atoll nation would become uninhabitable well before then.


Bill Mitchell, who manages the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project that provides the only observed data for the region, said its records only extended to almost 20 years.

“It is not clear yet what contribution long-term climate change is making to sea levels, but we are getting there,” hesaid.

The islanders’ visits are timed to place pressure on the Pacific Islands Forum to act more urgently and to press Australia and New Zealand to spend much more on helping islanders adapt.

AusAid is already spending $150 million on such a program over three years, but Oxfam says in a new report that Australia and New Zealand should urgently commit up to $668m.

Australia should also spend $4.3 billion a year to finance emissions cuts and longer-term adaptation efforts in developing countries, Oxfam says.

By 2050, 150 million people may be displaced globally because of climate change, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The potential for climate displacement is especially a concern for low-lying atoll nations in Polynesia and Micronesia,” it says. “With land areas just metres above sea level and narrow strips of land just 50-100m wide in some atolls, there is no retreat to higher ground from the ravages on the coast. The potential for forced displacement among the Pacific islands population of about eight million people demands urgent debate.”

The Oxfam report does not, however, cite the South Pacific Sea Level and Climate Monitoring Project, which is run by Australia’s National Tidal Centre, based at the Bureau of Meteorology in Adelaide, which operates the only Pacific-wide equipment to measure sea level rises.

The centre installed, mostly from 1992 to 1994, sophisticated tidal gauges in 12 of the 14 island states, leaving only Palau and Niue unmonitored.

These have revealed that the Pacific countries – especially those in the west and nearer the equator, mostly Melanesian and Micronesian islands – are seeing sea level rises of about 5mm a year, compared with an average global rise of about 3mm.

These figures are further complicated by satellite altimeter measurements, which, the National Tidal Centre says, “show evidence of a decadal slosh of Pacific sea level, with sea levels having risen in the southwest Pacific and fallen in the northwest Pacific since 1992”. Tuvalu, an atoll nation of 10,000 Polynesian people to the north of Fiji, has a land area of 26sqkm and a maximum height of 5m.

Sydney University geography professor John Connell has explained, though, that other factors besides global warming that have probably affected Tuvalu’s vulnerability include the construction of new roads between islands, the sealing of an airport runway, removing vegetation, land reclamation, sea wall construction and mining for sand used in construction.

The first islands to organise an evacuation are the Carterets, eight hours by boat to the northeast of Bougainville in eastern Papua New Guinea.

Ursula Rakova, 43, who grew up on the Carterets – six tiny atolls around a lagoon 25km across– is visiting Australia with the Australian Conservation Foundation.

She says 2700 people are still living there, after about 200 years of human occupation. But half of the land — whose highest point is only 1.2m — has already been lost within her lifetime.

She acknowledges that a contributory factor is that the islands are located on top of an underwater volcano, which is steadily subsiding, but says she believes climate change is another factor.

“We have very high tides, strong waves, much more powerful currents, and more storms, with plenty of rain,” Ms Rakova says. “We can paddle canoes where we used to walk.”

She has already established a new home for her family in Arawa, the capital of Bougainville, and the first 50 people are now shifting to Tinputz on Bougainville’s east coast under a voluntary evacuation program drawn up by the PNG government, for which it allocated about $1m for 2007.

“But we have not seen a single toea (cent),” said Ms Rakova, who runs Tulele Peisa, an NGO assisting the relocations.

“For us born there, we’re losing everything: our identity, our culture, our connections to the islands, our whole life.”

Oxfam and Greenpeace are hosting a visit about the impact of climate change from Pelenise Alofa Pilitati, managing director of a Kiribati NGO; Reverend Tafue Lusama, chairman of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network; and Marstella Jack, former attorney-general of the Federated States of Micronesia.

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