South Pacific: Rising sea levels already hurting islands

by Kalinga Seneviratne

Singapore, 15 Feb 2001 (IPS) -- Last week, high tides drowned many causeways linking villages in the tiny South Pacific island of Kiribati, forcing cars, buses and trucks to drive through seawater in its capital Tarawa.

This is the latest in a series of such flooding across the South Pacific in recent months, an occurrence that experts say is caused by rising sea levels due to global warming.

Kiribati is among a number of Pacific island nations that could drown during this century, if ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions by industrialized countries are not dramatically reduced in the next few years.

High tides and stormy seas have also caused problems recently in the Marshall Islands, Cook Island, Tuvalu and low-lying islands of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

In mid-January, high tides and strong winds caused seawater to flood parts of the low-lying areas of the Marshall Islands capital, Majuro.  Some families were forced to move from their homes into government buildings during the height of the flooding.

Earlier this month, landowners in PNG’s East New Britain province agreed to allow Duke of York islanders threatened by rising sea levels to move to the mainland. About 2,000 people living in Bougainville’s atoll island of Cateret have also asked to be moved to higher ground in the mainland, but lack of government funds have prevented this movement.

Cateret Island’s administrative secretary, Francis Kabano, told the ‘New Zealand Herald’ last month that people there are actually constantly being forced to move with the rising sea levels.

A report released earlier this month by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that global warming could cost the world billions of dollars a year, unless industrialised countries take immediate steps to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases produced from the burning of fossil fuel - all linked with the warming of the Earth.

The report said that in low-lying states such as the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia in the South Pacific, the losses due to climatic change could, within the next 50 years, exceed 10% of their national wealth or the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The report, done by UNEP’s insurers, estimates that losses worldwide linked to climate change could annually cost $304 billion by this time.

In the same report, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Topfer called on the world “to act now”. He said that countries should restart the climate change talks, which were stalled in The Hague, Netherlands at the end of last year when the developed countries refused to make any concrete commitments towards reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We must help vulnerable areas of the world, primarily in the developing countries, to adapt to the consequences of global warming.  We have a moral responsibility to our fellow men and women to protect them and their families from food shortages to devastating floods,” he argued.

Patrina Dumaru, assistant director for environment of the Fiji-based Pacific Concerns and Resource Centre, has perhaps heard all these before.

“For us in the Pacific, a grim reality was realised,” he said, referring to the climate change talks that collapsed in the Netherlands. “The over-consumptive lifestyle of the rich world was not negotiable - even if it cost us our land, peoples and culture.”

“For years Pacific and other small island states have pleaded with the industrialised world, to take action so that the islands may be saved.  Facts and figures considered alarming and unjust toward us was of no significance at this meeting,” he pointed out.

“Although we contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emission— just 0.06% -- we will be the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming and sea-level rise,” he added.

Writing for the Pacific News Bulletin monthly, Dumaru says that while countries debate about what steps to take against global warming and negotiate international agreements, small islets have already been swallowed by the ocean in Tuvalu, Kiribati and Bougainville.

In addition, warmer temperatures have led to the bleaching of the Pacific Island’s main source of survival - the coral reefs.

Bleaching occurs when reef-building corals, reacting to stress such as warmer waters, loosen the algae that help feed them. Because the algae give them colour, the starved corals look pale, thus the term “bleaching”. Continued bleaching ultimately kills corals.

Last year, scientists reported that in Fiji, coral bleaching had reached levels that are the worst in 30 years. They attribute this to abnormally high water temperatures there in recent years. There have also been similar reports from the Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Tonga and Palau.

At least one third of Palau’s coral reefs were destroyed during the El Nino weather phenomenon in the mid-1990s, as a consequence of which its fish food sources were reduced. Under a cooperation agreement between Palau, Japan and the United States, an International Coral Reef Centre was set up in Palau in 1995 to help repair the damage.

As a prelude to The Hague conference last year, the World Bank released a report warning of dire consequences to the Pacific Island states from climate changes in the world.

It said that among the impacts of global warming would be the loss of low-lying coastal areas, more intense cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, losses in coral reefs, and the spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

It estimated that by 2050, Fiji would suffer annual damages to the tune of 2-4% of its GDP and Kiribati between 17-34% of its GDP.

The Bank argued that for the Pacific, climatic change should be considered one of the most important challenges of the 21st century and a priority area for immediate action.

Reflecting on the failed conference at The Hague, Dumaru says that one thing was clear - money talks. “Rich countries don’t really care whether our islands sink, float or fly. That’s our little problem,” he observed.

“Of course, we can expect adaptation funds from them. After all, it’s a cheaper way of dealing with a problem of their making,” added Dumaru.

He argues that the challenge facing people’s organisations in the Pacific, such as his, is to make the impact of climate change on Pacific Island communities an international human rights issue. Said Dumaru: “Still recovering from the aftermath of the nuclear bomb (testing in the Pacific), we must now prepare ourselves for the climactic bomb.”