Jan 8, 2014

‘Now it is too late’: bracing for Pacific climate displacement

The impact of climate change means it's probably too late to save islands in the Solomons. So where will thousands of villagers go? Catherine Wilson reports on the looming displacement crisis.

On the islands of Ontong Java in the Solomon Islands (pictured), a South Pacific state three hours by air north-east of Brisbane, time isn't wasted arguing about climate change. In the main village of Luaniua, islanders have for years witnessed irreversible sea level rise. It has broken down sea walls, flooded villages, inundated food-producing land and contaminated freshwater wells. Houses have collapsed with coastline erosion, tree cover has declined, increasing human and plant vulnerability to the intense tropical sun, and, day by day, people’s energy is consumed more by basic survival. "There is not enough food and water for everyone, there is not enough to eat," Hugo Kahano from Luaniua’s House of Chiefs told Crikey. "We now rely on imported food delivered by boat once a month, but this is not enough." "We first noticed the impacts of climate change on Ontong Java in the 1990s. Plans to address climate change should have started then. Now is too late." Satellite data shows the sea near the Solomon Islands has risen annually by 8mm over the past 20 years, compared to the global annual average of 3mm. Ontong Java in Malaita Province possesses a total land area of 12 square kilometres, is an average two metres above sea level, with a population of about 3000. Since 2010, the Anglican Church of Melanesia has worked on improving food security for its Polynesian communities. "The main problem is saltwater intrusion into the soil," George Bogese, ACOM's mission aid and program officer, explained in the capital Honiara. "Last year we concentrated on implementing atoll permaculture, and this year we will deliver rainwater tanks." Atoll permaculture involves the multi-layered cultivation of fruit trees, vegetables and root crops on constrained land. Salt-resistant varieties of the staple crop, swamp taro, an important part of the diet alongside fish and coconuts, have also been trialled. But yields still fall short and, chiefs Richard Poki and Hugo Pakoa say, urgent deliveries of relief supplies are needed now. They acknowledge they will eventually lose the islands that have sustained them for thousands of years. For the Solomon Islands government, climate change is the most critical development issue facing the nation, and it is now bracing for the impact of climate-induced migration. Who will make the final decision on migrants' fate? In a nation where 87% of land is under customary, not state ownership, can enough land be secured for new settlements?  In a least developed country, where will the money and capacity come from to relocate an entire island’s population? More than 85% of the nation’s 550,000 people practise subsistence livelihoods in rural areas on an archipelago of more than 900 islands. Living on the Pacific Rim of Fire with relentless risk of earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, islanders are no strangers to natural disasters. But more climate-associated devastation spells greater poverty and landlessness in a nation ranked 143 out of 187 countries for human development. Pearson Simi, provincial disaster officer in Auki town, Malaita Island, 400km south of Ontong Java, confirms a relocation strategy is being developed. "We have identified some government land in Central and South Malaita, but we will also have to find customary land to accommodate everyone," he told Crikey.
"We are already facing land issues with development and it will be a very challenging issue when moving people."
Poki is adamant solutions require a bottom-up process. "Our people want to make the decision about relocation and where we will resettle," he emphasised. "The first priority is proper consultations between the government, churches and our communities." The voices of those directly affected need to be heard and ways of maintaining livelihoods, cultural and social cohesion agreed upon. Many who voluntarily left Ontong Java in the past seeking work have gravitated to the capital, Honiara, where 35% of residents live in squatter settlements. Further escalation of slum communities is unsustainable. With governments struggling to cope with 30 million people internally displaced today in countries around the globe, destitution and indignity is an anxiety for those confronting climate-associated loss. By 2050, Pacific nations could be grappling with up to 1.7 million climate migrants, according to a recent London School of Economics report. The Solomon Islands government aims to have its first climate change relocation policy completed by the end of the year, but there will be formidable challenges in implementation. "The number one obstacle will be land," Hudson Kauhiona, climate change deputy director at the Ministry of Environment in Honiara, said. "We are already facing land issues with development, and it will be a very challenging issue when moving people." Less than 13% of land in the country is owned by the government, and traditional landowners rarely sell. If they do, acquisition, with most customary land not surveyed or registered, often entails long, complex and difficult negotiations with high demands for remuneration. "We would not sell our land because it brings benefits to our families and it contains the resources we need, such as water, rivers and forests," said Alfred Gegeo, a landowner on Malaita Island. "Also we need our land to provide for population growth." Land transactions between customary and non-customary landowners have triggered inter-generational grievances, as in the civil conflict known as the Tensions (1998-2003), which was fuelled by youth angered at the selling of their lands by the previous generation. But Kauhiona predicted population issues are likely to impact resettlement arrangements in the future: "There are clear boundaries to the land where people are allowed to come and stay. In one or two decades they may go beyond those boundaries. It is a living process." The Pacific Climate Change Science Program forecasts a maximum possible sea level rise of 15 centimetres in the Solomon Islands by 2030. Ontong Java is expected to be the first of many cases in the coming decades where people are forced to abandon their islands and villages.

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12 thoughts on “‘Now it is too late’: bracing for Pacific climate displacement

  1. Mark Duffett

    Yes, the Solomon Islands region is the locus of some of the highest recent sea level rise on the planet ( However, it should also be recognised that, as Charles Darwin correctly surmised over 150 years ago, the foundations of many Pacific Ocean islands are sinking, via tectonic and isostatic processes:

  2. michael crook

    the climate scientists no longer refer to “climate change”it is now climatedisruption. there is no historical perspective for what is happening now, the atmosphere has suffered irreversible damage. estimates are that there will be NO summer ice in the arctic ocean by 2017, that the calcium based live forms in the oceans such as algae and krill will be under severe threat within 20 years, think about that for the food chain. the latest climate forecasts by the UN are for 3.5 degrees increase by 2050 and 5.5 degrees by 2100, at which point ordinary human life is no longer sustainable. Thank you very much wealthy mining corporations, you have managed to convince successive governments of your lies for too long. it is now too late.

  3. Ian

    So what is your point Mark?

  4. Electric Lardyland

    I look forward to some rightard culture war foot soldier claiming, that no, it’s really that green left permaculture that’s destroying Ontong Java, not climate change.

  5. Mark Duffett

    My point is that I get uncomfortable when sea level rise is presented as being all about global warming, if not incontrovertible proof of it (“time isn’t wasted arguing about climate change. In the main village of Luaniua, islanders have for years witnessed irreversible sea level rise”). It’s not the whole truth. This sort of thing is the reason why so many geologists are off-side with climate scientists (wrongly in my view, but there it is). It’s not helpful in the climate debate to lead with the chin like this.

  6. Ian

    The problem is, Mark that climate change is not a simple phenomena nor does it happen in isolation. All sorts of factors have additional impacts on processes and events effected by climate change, eg clearing, population density and in this case tectonic plate movements.

    The fact is that the most serious concern right now is climate change and that is something we can or at least could have done something about. That is the thing that worries us most and not tectonic movements which are beyond our control. To expect articles written with this problem firmly in mind to then go off on a tangent and to bring in all sorts of other elements that may or may not have relevancy on a matter is really a diversion.

    These sorts of diversions are those we can expect denialists and sometimes genuine skeptics to focus on.

  7. Mark

    Part of the problem with the climate change debate is that on one side are those who are trying to establish the truth, or at least as close as we can get to the truth and on the other side are a group of people who will say anything to advance their agenda without ever being held accountable for what they say. In such circumstances the arguments supporting the evidence for what is happening need to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. This is ever so when there is an argument between good and evil. Not fair, but that is how it is.
    In this case, I am with my namesake, it is a glaring issue to say that sea level is rising 8 mm per year in the Solomons and 3 mm per year world wide. This is physically impossible. The Solomons must be sinking by 5 mm per year. So they have a problem which is being exacerbated by climate change (and, clearly from the article, population growth). It is a pity that the author, like most people, does not understand enough physics to have questioned these numbers. Mark is not being a denialist, he is merely pointing out the truth. And Ian is correct in saying we cannot do anything about continental drift and long term geological processes but we can do something about climate change and population growth.

  8. Mark Duffett

    It’s even more complicated than that – it is actually possible to have 8 mm SL rise regionally and 3 mm globally. As the first URL I gave puts it, “the increase in sea levels in the Western Tropical Pacific (is) due to changes in the Trade Winds. During El Niño years sea level rises in the eastern Pacific and falls in the western Pacific, whereas in La Niña years the opposite is true.” So in a sense the regional SL rise is climate-driven, but isn’t necessarily anything to do with global warming (jury is still out on the ENSO-global warming link AFAIK, certainly the relationship isn’t simple). In other words, a strong El Niño event (which we haven’t had for quite a while now) would relieve the pressure on the Solomon Islanders, as prevailing winds would pile the water up further east in the Pacific.

    For me the article would be considerably strengthened by having a bit less of the local colour and a bit more detail about what’s actually going on. The 8 mm/3 mm discrepancy highlighted by my namesake surely cries out for explanation to all but the most casual reader; hardly irrelevant or a diversion.

  9. Mark Duffett

    Meant to also say a geodetic GPS study of Pacific islands was apparently commenced circa 2008 to look at this issue of land subsidence vs local and global sea level rise, (under the above-mentioned Pacific Climate Change Science Program, I think). Significant results from it should be coming in by now, with over 5 years of data, but they’re strangely difficult to find. If anyone has any pointers I’d be most interested.

  10. Harold Krause

    In 1969, exactly 45 years ago, I was resident in New Ireland Province of PNG. The North side Coral Reef was rising out of the water all along the north coast while the Reef on the South coast was sinking. The area had several Strength 7 + earthquakes each year so how about considering the Tectonics of shifting plates in the region of the Rim Of Fire instead of alleged and easily blamed Global Warming aka Climate Change. Harold Krause, Thursday 09 January 2014.

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