Maria Tiimon doesn’t need a new report to tell her about the impact that climate change is having on her homeland in the Pacific. On a recent visit to the island she grew up on in Kiribati, she was shocked to find that entire roads that she and her family used to drive on had completely disappeared into the seawater. “Oh my God, this is so fast,” she said to her companions.

She is not alone in her alarm. Kiribati is one of a number of low-lying islands with few resources and minimal carbon emissions, such as Tuvalu, the Carteret and Mortlock Islands, and our own Torres Strait Islands, to be already suffering from the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.

Of course, many of these islands are prone to changing weather patterns, storm surges and land erosion and are experiencing problems associated with over-population. But in the minds of the locals there is no doubt — the changes they are seeing now are worse than anything they have ever seen before.

Now entire populations are facing the prospect of losing their homes, their livelihoods, their history, their culture and their identity.

In the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea resettlement has already begun, with families starting to set up new homes in Bougainville, 86 kilometres away. Spring tides have been inundating the islands on an increasing basis destroying food gardens and contaminating water supplies. Life there has become impossible.

Dr Scott Smithers, an environmental scientist at James Cook University, spent some time in the Carteret and Mortlock Islands (also situated off the coast of PNG) in November and December of last year and experienced one of their large wave events.

“The waves basically went right across the island and flooded all the food gardens and washed houses into the ocean. It made them realise what some of the things that they may experience more often in the future may be like … the people were basically scared,” he said. “They thought this was the end of their island.”

Small islands such as these are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change says the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the world’s foremost scientific body for the study of climate change. Sea-level rise is predicted to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards. And since 50 per cent of the Pacific island population lives within 1.5 kilometres of the shore, this is of particular concern. The report also predicts that water resources and agriculture will be seriously compromised.

According to leading global change scientist, Professor Nick Harvey, a contributing author on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, “[The Pacific islands] really don’t have a lot of room for adjustment because they might only be a couple of metres above sea level. If you get any fluctuation in sea level this affects their ground water, the salinity and also it impacts on mangroves.”

The IPCC projected a sea-level rise of between 19 and 58 centimetres by the end of the 21st century. These figures are now considered conservative, as potential large-scale tipping point events such as the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, were not included in their estimations. Updated predictions of between 50 centimetres and one metre or more by 2100 were presented at the Copenhagen Climate Change Congress in March 2009.

Maria Tiimon is from Beru, one of the 33 coral atolls of Kiribati, in the central Pacific Ocean. She says that many of the islands of Kiribati are so low-lying — only two metres above sea level — and so flat, that if you stand in the middle of the land you can see the ocean on both sides.

The islands of Kiribati have been experiencing a drought worse than any they’ve seen before and it’s making life very, very difficult, according to Maria.

“When I came back this time, most of the breadfruit trees are all dead. For people of Kiribati the breadfruit tree is very important because we get shelter from it, local medicine, of course, food. It’s almost the source of life for people of Kiribati.”

Coconuts are also a fundamental part of life for the poverty stricken people of Kiribati, so much so that they even use them as currency. But the coconut trees are dying too, and the fruits they are producing are small and unhealthy.

Maria also found that the well water was being affected. “I was really shocked with how the well water is becoming brackish. The water is almost unbearable to drink. There are many wells that are already dried out,” she said. They have no other source of water.

Maria says the islanders feel weak and hopeless in the face of the changes.

“There will be much more land disappearing,” they told her. “But what can we do to stop it? All we do is just sit and watch it happen before our eyes.”

The elders on the island are aware that one of these days their islands will disappear and they are desperately hoping that industrialised nations will hear their plight.

They told Maria, “Now we realise that we have to move, somehow we have to move. If it’s not today or tomorrow but one of those days we have to move … bigger countries, industrialised countries could help us to stop this problem … but if it’s too late, could industrialised countries be kind and consider to migrate the young generation to safer places?”

Sulufaiga Uota is from the island of Niutao in Tuvalu, which is even lower-lying than Kiribati. She says they are seeing similar changes there.

“The water is coming up through the water table and that is spoiling the traditional crops that we have as our stable meals. Not only that but on most of the islands the coastal area, especially the shoreline has been eroded. Twenty years back there were a lot of coconut trees and pandanus trees growing beside the shoreline but…they’ve all gone. Five rows of coconut trees and pandanus trees have been taken away by the sea.”

But according to Sulu, the people are not yet ready to say goodbye to their islands.

“We don’t want to move…That’s where we belong. I think there is still time. Please we need the attention of the global community on our islands because we don’t want to be homeless and we don’t want to be burden. Look it’s our identity that we really care for because once we’re moved we lost everything. It’s sad. Not only the land but who we are as Tuvaluans, we lost it.”

As their wealthy neighbour and a significant emitter of greenhouse gas, there is little dispute that Australia has a responsibility to Pacific islanders adversely affected by climate change. And Kevin Rudd will be asked to face up to Australia’s responsibility as he meets with Pacific leaders at this week’s summit of the Pacific Island Forum in Cairns.

But it is not only the Pacific Islanders that are calling for action. Closer to home, Australia’s own Torres Strait Islands are facing comparable issues, with up to 2000 people at risk of displacement, according to the IPCC.

Jill Finnane from the Pacific Calling Partnership in Sydney, a group of organisations that campaign on behalf of low-lying islands in the Torres Strait and the Pacific says, “[Torres Strait Islanders also stand to] lose their heritage, their link with the past. And being indigenous people the links with the land and the sea are very, very strong, their ancestors are buried in these places and that’s just an incredibly important part of their culture, that link with the land and so it’s a great cultural and identity loss.”

More than 7000 people live on 16 of over 100 islands in the Torres Strait and comprise 19 different communities, each with unique histories, traditions, laws and customs.

Ironically, land that the Torres Strait Islanders stand to lose has been legally recognised as theirs for less than twenty years. The ground-breaking land rights case led by Eddie Mabo in 1992 resulted in the High Court upholding the claim that Murray Islanders held native title to land in the Torres Strait.

At a forum in Sydney in October last year Bonita Mabo, widow of Eddie and a land-rights activist herself, spoke about the effects of climate change in the Torres Strait.

“I don’t know much about the effects of climate change but when I visited my home island I wanted to go and visit the place where I grew up. One of the men said, ‘Oh Aunty, you wouldn’t want to go there. All the sand’s been washed away!’”

As things currently stand, climate-induced displacement of increasing numbers of people around the world seems to be inevitable. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated in 2002 that 24 million people had already become climate refugees.

By 2010, this number will have more than doubled to 50 million – mostly women and children – according to the United Nations (UN) University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security.

And by 2050, the International Organisation for Migration says, we can expect around 200 million people to be displaced by the effects of climate change.

And that’s really not so far away.

Peter Fray

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