November 22, 2005

Islands battle rising seas for survival

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Carteret Islands are almost invisible on a map of the South Pacific, but the horseshoe scattering of atolls is on the front-line of climate change, as rising sea levels and storm surges eat away at their existence.

For 20 years, the 2,000 islanders have fought a losing battle against the ocean, building sea walls and trying to plant mangroves. Each year, the waves surge in, destroying vegetable gardens, washing away homes and poisoning freshwater supplies.

Papua New Guinea's Carteret islanders are destined to become some of the world's first climate change refugees. Their islands are becoming uninhabitable, and may disappear below the waves.

A decision has been made to move the islanders to the larger nearby Bougainville island, four hours' boat ride to the southwest. Ten families at a time will be moved, over one to two years, once funds are allocated for the resettlement program.

"It's a pretty hard life out there on the islands. Some of the homes have been washed away," Joe Kaipu, the senior district coordinator of Bougainville, told Reuters by telephone.

"The only action now is to resettle them," he said.

A United Nations panel of more than 2,000 scientists has predicted that average sea levels are likely to rise between 9 and 88 cm (3.5 to 35 inches) by 2100, mainly because of a build-up of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.

Sea levels are expected to rise because of a melting of ice caps and because water expands when it warms. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melted in coming centuries, for instance, sea levels would rise by seven meters.

Many scientists say a 50 cm rise in sea levels could cause a 50 meter retreat of the coastline in low-lying areas.

At the higher end of the forecast, the sea would overflow the heavily populated coasts of countries such as Bangladesh, and cause low-lying island states like the Indian Ocean's Maldives and South Pacific's Kiribati and Tuvalu to disappear.


"It's a matter of survival for us. If our islands go under, we all go under," said President Anote Tong of Kiribati, 33 low-lying islands covering 5 million sq. km (1.9 million sq. mile) in the South Pacific and home to about 100,000 people.

"We move back from the shoreline, (but) how far can we move back? We are in danger of falling off the backside of our islands," Tong told Reuters at a recent Pacific leaders' summit in Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea.

Kiribati's highest point is 87 meters (261 ft) above the sea. Most islands are coral atolls covered with just 2.5 meters (just over 8 ft) of hard sand and meager soil. There are no rivers and most islands enclose a lagoon.

Two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater in 1999, according to the South Pacific Regional Environment Program, and the island of Tepuka Savilivili no longer has any coconut trees due to salination.

Tong said the world's big polluters, like the United States and Australia who have remained outside the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases, must face the moral consequences of their inaction.

"That is a question that they have to ask themselves -- are they willing to see us go under?" Tong said.

The United States pulled out of Kyoto in 2001 when President George W. Bush said it was too expensive and wrongly excluded poor nations from the first round of cuts to 2012. Australia has also refused to ratify the protocol.


Scientists say rising sea levels would also foul freshwater supplies for millions of people and spur mass migrations.

A recent UN study forecast that some 50 million people could became environmental refugees by 2010, driven from their homes by desertification, rising sea levels, flooding and storms linked to climate change.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Maatia Toafa hates the term "environmental refugee" but admits his 11,600 people may have to abandon their South Pacific island homes.

Tuvalu consists of a fringe of nine atolls, with the highest point no more than 5 meters (17 ft) above sea level, but most a mere 2 meters (6.5 ft) high.

A small island off the capital Funafuti has already disappeared beneath the sea and some islanders have been forced to grow crops in tins because the soil has become too salty.

In February, only days before Kyoto came into effect, Tuvaluans in the capital watched high tides and strong winds send waves crashing across the main road. Children rode the waves on makeshift surfboards, trailing behind cars and vans dashing for higher ground.

"The prediction is (that) in 50 years Tuvalu will not exist," said Toafa. "Resettlement is impossible in the country because all the islands are low-lying," he said from Funafuti.


In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives' 1,200 coral islands lie so low that some were briefly swamped when the December 26 Asian tsunami hit the scattered island state off India.

Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom published "The Maldives: A Nation in Peril" in 1998, outlining the danger of rising seas. Since then, coastal defenses have been built and efforts made to protect reefs and guard against storm surges.

"We are doing all we can to protect our nation. However, what we do here in the Maldives does not guarantee us an environmentally secure future," Gayoom told Reuters.

"Our safety would only be certain when the international community takes concrete steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and specific actions to reduce the threat of sea level rise."

Small island nations want a new insurance facility to help underwrite the cost of climate change-related weather damage, and have called for a special fund to build coastal defenses, protect water supplies and develop new forms of agriculture.

Gayoom said he hoped the UN climate change conference in Montreal, starting on November 28, would lay foundations for a post-Kyoto solution to climate change, by finding common ground with big polluting nations.

"Those who have rejected the Kyoto Protocol should not wait for unequivocal scientific proof of the climate change process, but need to find the political will to go beyond the short-term benefits of their respective countries, for an environmentally secure future," Gayoom said.

(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Colombo)