Tamari’i Tutangata
describes how rising seas are already beginning to overwhelm Pacific island nations

As a ten-year-old I used to look at the sea with awe; at the seemingly endless supply of fish that I could harvest with my bare hands to feed my family. Now, when I look at it, I wonder how far into the new millennium we will be before it overwhelms our coasts.

The world seems increasingly intoxicated with the promises of the new millennium. But as we are bombarded with more and more information about the millennium celebrations, I find myself asking: what is there for us to celebrate?

What is there to celebrate if the Northern Group islands of the Cook Islands, or the many islands of Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are to disappear beneath the ocean?

The Pacific’s 22 countries and territories are strung out across 29 million square kilometres of ocean. They contain some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, and are inhabited by cultures that have lived harmoniously in an often difficult and fragile environment for millennia – longer than Germanic or Slavic peoples have lived in Europe, or Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

Pacific island countries have contributed just 0.06 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet now, changing climate and sea levels, linked to global warming, are affecting their water supply, food production, fisheries and coastlines.

At least two motu, or small islets, have already disappeared in Kiribati. The country’s oral history, which goes back thousands of years, says that one of them, Tebua Tarawa, was the first motu to be formed in the Tarawa lagoon. Until a decade ago, fishermen used it as a resting-place; a place where they could beach their boats and harvest coconuts to slake their thirst. Then the coconut trees disappeared, then the sand banks, and now the fishing boats skim over it as it lies beneath the waves. Abanuea, known locally as ‘the long-lasting beach’, has also disappeared beneath the rising seas.

In Tuvalu, the oceans are similarly reclaiming the motu of Tepuka Savilivili. Its once extensive sand banks have also disappeared, its coconut trees have gone, and the ocean is slowly moving up its remaining rock.

Over the past five years, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the National Tidal Facility at Flinders University in Australia have established sea-level monitoring stations across the Pacific. Preliminary results show a sea-level rise of up to 25 millimetres per year – well above the global estimate of a 2-millimetre annual rise made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Satellite data have validated these findings, and shown a 20 to 30-millimetre per year sea-level rise in a region stretching from Papua New Guinea southeast to Fiji.

Freak storms
This accelerated sea-level rise is thought to be linked mainly to the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has become markedly more frequent and intense over the past two decades. El Niño brings stronger storm surges to the Pacific and it is these, coupled with the underlying sea-level rise, that have swamped Kiribati’s motu.

Both in 1997 and 1998, unusual storm surges in Kiribati and the Republic of the Marshall Islands saw the tide just continuing to rise. Sea walls, bridges, causeways and roads were destroyed; houses and plantations were flooded.

Coastal erosion is now a continuing problem in most low-lying Pacific islands. Some of it, in more populated areas, can be blamed on inappropriate land-use practices, but this is not the whole story. Coasts of outer islands that have seen no development are also eroding.

The recent changes in climate and sea level are also creating major problems for water supplies and food production in the Pacific. Last year, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga were all hit by devastating droughts. Fiji’s sugar cane production, which normally provides 40 per cent of its export earnings, fell by two-thirds. Tonga’s squash crop, which produces about half of its export earnings, was more than halved. In Papua New Guinea, Australia spent more than $A30 million delivering food to people in isolated areas of the highlands and low-lying islands, many of whom were close to starvation. In Micronesia, almost 40 atolls ran out of water and the capital, Pohnpei, was reduced to living off brackish underground supplies.
Fisheries and ocean currents are altering; traditional knowledge no longer holds true

Radical change
The rising sea levels are also seeping into the soils of low-lying atolls and making them too salty for the root crops that are the islanders’ staple foods. People who for millennia have grown taro, pulaka or yams in poor soil by planting them in pits of compost are now having to radically change their methods of cultivation. Many people in Funafuti, in Tuvalu, for example, are now growing their taro in compost in old kerosene cans.

Other changes are also being observed across the Pacific. Fisheries are altering: ocean currents have changed, and so have the locations of the fish. Traditional knowledge that has long enabled communities to find fish – their main source of protein – no longer holds true. Meanwhile malaria is taking hold in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where previously it was too cold for the mosquitoes that carry the disease to survive.

Science has not yet decided whether the changes in the patterns of El Niño are a result of climate change or simply a decadal variation. Up to the past decade, scientific research was only sparsely applied in the Pacific, and indications of present change are based largely on strong anecdotal evidence. But just as you do not tell a person staring at their blazing house that it is not burning because science has not yet agreed on the cause of the fire, so you cannot tell Pacific island countries that they should ignore the changes they are now experiencing.

The adverse events in the Pacific are the kind of impacts which the IPCC has told its people to expect as the climate changes. It would be foolhardy for any Pacific island country to ignore that advice.

Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity have already committed the Pacific to an inevitable rise in sea level. An Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) study has determined that the pollutants emitted up to 1995 have already built an inevitable 5 to 12-centimetre sea-level rise into natural systems, peaking in about 2020-2025. The CSIRO also considered how much the seas would be likely to rise if the world’s nations met the commitments they made to reduce emissions in the Kyoto Protocol agreed in December 1997, and then, in 2020, developed the technology to effectively cease all emissions thereafter. Under this, optimistic, scenario, the seas would rise by 14 to 32 centimetres by about 2050.

Failing commitment
This is worrying for low-lying Pacific island countries, many of which are only 1 to 2 metres above sea level. It fuels their disappointment that countries have so far failed to meet even the minimal commitment they made under the Climate Convention agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit, to return their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. They know that, in fact, the IPCC has estimated that cuts of the order of 60 to 80 per cent will be needed if global warming is to be stopped.

Pacific island countries have led the way, under SPREP’s Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Programme, in establishing their vulnerability to climate change as well as options to help them reduce it. But committed global action remains their main hope. The sooner the countries start implementing the reductions they have committed themselves to making – and accept that much stronger cuts will be needed – the better will be the Pacific’s chances of surviving the next millennium.

Tamari’i Tutangata is Director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

PHOTOGRAPH: Topham Picturepoint

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Terry Donald Coe: Small is dutiful (Climate & Action) 1998
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: Averting catastrophe (Oceans) 1998
Neroni Slade: Scaffolding or scaffold? (Climate Change) 1997