Our Sinking Islands: Climate Change Migration

By: Raywin Taroaniara

He stands at the southern point of the island called Pelau and points out to the sea beyond, “When I was ten years old there were a lot of houses here, maybe 30 houses” Chris Keungi, a 40 years old islander and son of a former island chief explained.

It is hard to comprehend the current state of the Ontong Java Atoll a ring of 120 islands located 500 km north of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Now that the line on the horizon where light blue waters are flowing into the lagoon where the land used to end some three decades ago.

“When I came back (after ten years studying in Honiara), I saw many changes had happened. The soil erosion had begun to wash away most of the houses that were affected by sea rise”, Keungi continued to say.

In Pileni, a small, inhabited island to the north of Lata, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands, similar sentiments were observed. Islanders indicated that tides and inundations were hazards that they are most concern about; the Solomon Islands Red Cross has reported that the tides and inundations are experienced at least three times per year.

The Pileni community says that rising seawater and tides are affecting the underground water table; as a result, water is often salty as well as causing coastal erosion that has washed off most of the shoreline within the period of past three decades. About 10 kilometres south-east of Pileni island another coral atoll island Tuwo has lost 300m of land and its graveyard is now underwater.

Due west of Solomon Islands, the far eastern part of Papua New Guinea the Carteret Islands have been facing coastal erosion and food and water shortage due to sea-level rise and storm surges. It has been noted that since 1994, 50% of the inhabitable land area had been lost to the sea.

“A lot of women and children are getting sick with dysentery and malnutrition because they are not able to get balanced and nutritious meals each day,” says Ursula Rakova, leader of Tulele Peisa, when she spoke about the disruption caused by climate change and the Carteret Islands resettlement program.Tulele Peisa was founded as a local NGO in the Council of Elders and Chiefs of the Carteret Islands and was designed to coordinate a voluntary relocation program for the islanders.

In 2014, the Government of Kiribati purchased the 5500 (20 square kilometres) acre of Natoavatu Estate on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island at US$8.77 million (Fig.2). This is to provide a home for the people of i-Kiribati who are also facing the sea level rise crisis and are already at the brink of losing their homes. Scientists have predicted that with the current trend of sea-level rise and climate crises, islands countries that are made up of coral atolls like Kiribati may become uninhabitable within decades.

Tuvalu is also one of the most vulnerable island country in the Pacific that is also impacted by climate change. The Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama welcomes people from Kiribati and Tuvalu to settle in Fiji, “Fiji will offer a home to you the people of Tuvalu,”. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga expressed gratitude at Fiji’s offer to take Tuvalu refugees but reaffirmed that that phase has yet to come.

Figure 2: Diaspora events Source: https://www.freeworldmaps.net/ocean/pacific/ Annotations added by author

Climate Change Status

Pacific island countries are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change. It has been reported that the increase of temperature from 0.12 to 0.18 degrees centigrade per decade since the 1950s has a profound effect on the low-lying islands states in the Pacific.

Impacts, including; social disruptions as the homes and human settlements are washed off is detrimental. Food security has been impacted, causing a significant dependence on imported goods that leads to non-communicable diseases and hunger. Disruption of wildlife and the environment as a result of people continue moving inland in search of space to re-settle.

For those in some tiny islands, people had to move to other bigger islands, resulted in intra-national and intra-pacific climate migration. The economy has been affected, and poverty has exacerbated the measure taken to improve livelihood as it focuses much more on recovery from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise than on building the economy.

Climate Change Migration

Moving from smaller islands to larger islands in search of opportunities, access to education and health activities has been gradual to a minimal in the past. The recent movements are regarded as movements away from a land that is no longer habitable, due to the impact of climate change, and it is evidently increasing.

The impact of the rise in temperature has been evident in the loss of traditional fishing ground due to coral bleaching. 70% of Pacific Islanders are living on coastlines and depend on the coral reef and the ocean for food and income. Sea level rise and saltwater intrusion has been devastating to the tiny islands and with an average rise of 8 mm per year, destroying homes and has impacted food security.

In the recent decade, people from Ontong Java has formed a settlement in the Honiara the capital of the Solomon Islands. Today the settlement is home to some 300 residents giving them the chance to further their education, and some the opportunity to relocate permanently (Fig.3).

Since the 1980’s settlements have formed along the coast of Santa Cruz (Fig.3) by people from Pileni and its nearby outer islands, it has been reported that almost all the household in Pileni have at least one member of their family living on other islands including on Santa Cruz.

In the Carteret Islands, the first resettlement began in 1984 and in the year 2011 itself, not more than ten households were relocated to Bougainville Island (Fig.3).

Figure 3: Intra-national (movement from within a country) migration Source: Google Map Annotations added by author

Though Tuvalu’s government want to maintain the population in Tuvalu, it is evident that islanders are moving to other counties in searching for viable sustenance. New Zealand has offer 75 places available each year for Tuvaluan, others have moved due to study and jobs and only return remittances to assist their families that remained in Tuvalu (Fig.2).

In 2012, the development policy blog reported that Kiribati, with the approximate population of 118,000, 4% have migrated to other countries. While in Tuvalu, 16% of the population of 11,000 have migrated. In addition, they have estimated that there will be a gradual increase in migration from 2030 to 2050 (Fig 4).

What did Islanders think about migration?

There are thousands of low lying atolls that are about 1-3 meters above the sea level and functioning on a limited resource that suppresses the need to diversify livelihood. This makes islander more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise, inundations, storm surges that adversely affect food security.

Challenges will inevitably be encountered at some cost, even when migration is at the last resort. This will result in islanders facing uncertainties that lead to few who might not want to move from their deteriorating island at all.

Land dispute – In the Pacific islands, 90% of the land is customarily owned, meaning it is owned by the tribe and is passed down from generation to generation. And so the government cannot easily give up land through a legal process. Therefore by having people from another island to settle on other islands is not that easy and can lead to land disputes and as experienced with the relocation of the Carteret Islanders to Bougainville in the 1984 and ended in 1989 due to land disputes.

Loss of cultural heritage – Movement of people require denoting the intertwined bond between people, land and culture. Watching the land being washed away by the sea is like watching your identity disappearing. Moving away from the islands means leaving behind one’s identity, culture and right to ownership.

Climate Action

Solutions to counter the impacts; awareness and education about climate change and its effects on the environment and human livelihood are essential. In addition, including adaptation measures to support food security and resilience. Proactive policy and action programme need to be developed to counter the impacts that migrants will face, and efforts need to be taken to support resilience and adaptation to disaster and the impact of climate change.

Awaken call made to the government to start looking at proactive relocation, our government should step forward and look at the situation …otherwise I will be displaced, then I will have nowhere to settle… “a statement made by Chris Keungi.

Globally the data on human migration due to climate and environmental crisis is limited, but migrants figures have been reported through regions and within countries. The UN International Organization for Migration has predicted that by 2050 there could be 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants globally. Therefore, the climate action that focuses on the reduction of climate crises and the reduction of greenhouse gasses emission is vital and to be addressed at the global level such as the signing of the UN Migration treaty in 2018. Countries in the Pacific have minimal contribution to greenhouse gasses emission but are on the vulnerable side to face the devastating impact of the climate crisis.

Further researches need to be done to look at both voluntary and planned migration. And to look at the cost and logistics of migration and the different types of migration including migration within the country, migration from one country to another and the voluntary migration that involves gradual movement over a period of time. This is to help policymakers and planners make informed decisions to assist people at the verge of becoming climate migrants. In addition, to continue to address the climate crises and as to maintain global warming at 1.5 degrees centigrade.

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