Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Watery apocalypse awaits Pacific islands

Aug 26, 2009

By Anthony Paul

AS A teenager in the Carteret Islands, a south-west Pacific atoll in the eastern Papua New Guinea (PNG) archipelago, Ms Ursula Rakova walked to her school and church along a road on Han Island, the centre of a thriving community that produced taro, the islanders' staple food.

These days, the taro plantations are gone, swamped by rising seas. The road, too, is underwater. 'Where we once walked,' she told The Straits Times, 'we now have to paddle a canoe.'

Tuvalu, a tiny south-west Pacific nation (population: 12,000) about 3,200km east of the Carterets, is often billed as the likely first community to be devoured by the surrounding ocean. Its situation is indeed dire: Seawater and the saltwater table threaten coconut and taro farming.

According to latest studies of the region's changing conditions, however, Tuvalu won't actually disappear for another 1,000 years, though it will become uninhabitable long before then.

Carteret islanders are already dealing with a watery apocalypse.

The islands form a horseshoe-shaped atoll (population: 3,300) with a total area of 0.6 sq km (the size of about 83 soccer fields) and a maximum height of 1.2m above sea level. Much of the land the community lives on is already awash. Islanders deal with a higher incidence of malaria as the atoll's volcanic foundations slowly collapse, and trees and taro, coconut and banana crops surrender to ever more violent storms.

When their plight began to become more desperate some 20 years ago, islanders built sea walls and planted mangroves to break the waves' advance. 'But recently,' says Ms Rakova, 'it has become evident that these measures aren't going to work in the long run.'

Over the past six months, about 800 islanders have either fled or are currently planning their families' escape to drier land at Tinputz, on Bougainville, PNG's largest nearby island. 'By 2015,' says Ms Rakova, 'we'll have to move the rest.'

The Carterets, populated about 200 years ago by settlers from Bougainville, have a largely matriarchal society: Women inherit much of the land. Ms Rakova, 43, a soft-spoken but clearly strong-willed graduate of PNG University in Port Moresby, heads Tulele Peisa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) leading the evacuation. The NGO's name means 'riding the waves' in the local language.

Ms Rakova gave up her job with Oxfam three years ago to set up Tulele Peisa. 'Our whole culture is at stake,' she says. 'Our people, especially the older ones, don't want to move, but there is really no alternative.'

The islanders, she says, blame people in industrialised countries for what is happening. 'We don't fully understand the science,' she admits, 'but we're angry about reports that carbon dioxide emissions may be causing climate change.'

If the wider world is indeed causing problems for the Carterets, it won't be the first time. During the Pacific War (1941-45), fighting between Allied forces and the Japanese invaders caused much devastation. The islanders ruefully recall how the Carterets were once seven islands, but bombing obliterated one island, turning them into a six-island atoll. Some outside the islands are sceptical of this story, claiming that over the years, islanders have reduced their available land by using explosives to carve out new fishing areas.

Whatever the truth, latest scientific studies by institutes in Australia don't encourage islanders who may want to stay and continue fighting the ocean's surge.

Australia's National Tidal Centre's measurements show that western Pacific areas nearer the equator, like the Carterets, appear to be experiencing sea-level rises of about 5mm a year, compared with an average global rise of about 3mm.

Meantime, satellite altimeter readings, says the tidal centre, show evidence over the past decade of a kind of grand pan-Pacific 'slosh': Sea levels 'have risen in the south-west Pacific and fallen in the north-west Pacific since 1992'.

In a recent report, Oxfam warns that 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,' the report says. 'With land areas just metres above sea level and narrow strips of land just 50m to 100m wide in some atolls, there is no retreat to higher ground from the ravages on the coast.'

Certainly, the Carterets' islanders are worried. Says Ms Rakova: 'The PNG government allocated 2 million kina (S$1.1 million) to pay for more land in Bougainville (for the resettlers), but we have not seen one cent of this so far.

'We're losing our ancestral home, our culture, our identity, our whole life. We hope the world is listening.

'Climate change is not just about statistics, not just about science. Climate change is about human rights and the vulnerability of all people on small Pacific islands.'

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