PM ‘ignoring’ plight of Australia’s sinking islands

Climate chaos0


Through the plane window I could see Boigu was little more than an oblong mangrove swamp, just a few kilometres off PNG.

Even at its centre, wide muddy expanses covered in shallow ponds formed intricate patterns of tan and yellow and grey, and reflected the sunlight back at me.

On arrival I was introduced to Keith Pabai, who, along with being the headmaster of the island’s primary school, is a traditional owner.

He took me around, showing me how far the last king tide – in January 2009 – had crashed over sea walls and flooded the town.

All but a tiny proportion of the island had been submerged. The fresh water supply had been threatened.

“For some of our community members that was a frightening experience,” he said.

“In my lifetime that’s the biggest tide ever that I’ve seen, where that amount of – that excess of water coming through the community.”

He motioned toward the small incline which led up to the lip of the covered dam.

“Having the water here, that was scary, right up next to our water supply. The water was actually right around the whole dam,” Mr Pabai said.

Also disturbing to the community was the fact that one of its most sacred sites, the waterfront cemetery, was being slowly washed away.

I went to visit it and, sure enough, many of the graves had clearly been damaged. Wooden crosses had collapsed and were now entwined in tree roots exposed by erosion.

Here was an ancient culture which, if the scientists were right, would surely soon be swamped. But, according to Mr Pabai, there was no question the community wanted to stay put.

“It is something we haven’t thought of yet as a community, but these things are something we have to consider in the future, but at this time not as yet,” he said.


‘Freak tides’


The next day, I flew to another vulnerable island, this time in the centre of the Strait.

Warraber is, like several other stunning little islands, supported by coral. It is also very low.

I was received at the airport by local councillor Willie Lui, who toured me around his tropical paradise home.

Mr Lui showed me the lengths his community had gone to try to hold back the tides.

The biggest rocks that could be found had been dumped at the foreshore and covered with tyres, dead trees and brush. New palms had been planted in front of piles of coconuts.

It was an admirable effort for such a small community, but I secretly feared it would not hold.

In an interview, Mr Lui was clearly angry.

“We feel that nothing is actually being done,” he said.

“We’ve seen that the tides are getting higher, the winds are getting stronger, we’re getting more freak tides … and it not only scares me, it scares all of my community members.

“Australian dollars are going overseas to actually help other countries, and as a newly elected leader I find it hard to wrap my head around why the Government is fixing problems overseas. What about our own backyard. What about the Torres Strait?”


Conspiracy theories


Mr Lui said that the lack of response from authorities had resulted in conspiracy theories.

Rumours had started circulating that the Federal Government was secretly planning a forced relocation of people living on the six vulnerable islands in the Strait.

“How things are going at the moment, with the Local Government trying to secure funds from the State and the Federal Government, it makes the people think that the Government wants us to relocate – that’s what goes through the mind of the locals, the community members,” Mr Lui said.

Back on Thursday Island, which is the Strait’s administrative centre, the chairman of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, John Toshi Kris, has been working to try to secure funds from the Government.

He too is “bamboozled” at the fact Australia is giving Pacific Island countries $150 million in funding to adjust to climate change, while calls for $22 million to fund mitigation work in the Strait have amounted to nothing.

“This has been going on for the last two years,” he said.

“We haven’t had a single dollar coming in to fix up those short-term projects that we’ve identified.

“We’ve seen houses going under water.

“People are frustrated with sandbags. What they need to see is real projects on the ground to try and save these communities.”

Mr Kris also pointed out the potential of a massive influx of climate refugees from the low-lying, swampy southern coast of PNG.

“Erosion can cause a lot of people, issues coming across the border. The Government has been focusing on other countries but right on their doorstep here is a huge issue which can lead to a [big] national crisis … for our country,” he said.

“When we’re talking about the low lying part of Papua New Guinea, we’re not talking about tens and thousands of people, we’re talking about over 100,000 people that could actually come across.”

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