PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
SOUTH PACIFIC REGIONAL ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME
November 3, 1998
CHANGING CLIMATE AND SEA LEVELS AFFECT
Rising Sea Levels Poison Crops
On low-lying atolls in the Pacific, people have had to radically change the way
they grow crops, because rising sea levels are seeping into the soil, making it
too salty to grow staple crops such as taro, pulaka and yams.
In Tuvalu, farmers used to dig pits in the sandy soil, fill them with compost
and plant their root crops. Now, however, increasingly brackish water is
poisoning taro planted in pits in low-lying areas. Some farmers have relocated
their plantations to somewhat higher land, but there is only limited land
available in this nation of atolls. Instead, many people now grow their taro in
tin containers, which they fill with compost and soil before planting the taro.
Burial Places Under Threat
Throughout the Pacific, culturally and spiritually important sites are being
eroded by the rising seas. In the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati, burial
grounds near the coast - sacred places where people do not go except to pray -
are crumbling into the ocean. Second World War graves on Majuro atoll in the
Marshall Islands are slowly being eroded by wind and surf, which breaches the
sea walls and strews debris over the headstones. In Niue and Palau, where the
dead lie in caves near the ocean, people are now discussing moving their
ancestors further inland because of the threat from the rising ocean.
Coastal Roads, Bridges And Plantations Being Destroyed
As well as slowly rising sea levels which are eroding coastal roads and other
infrastructure, countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands also
suffered unusual storm surges in February 1997 and again this year, where the
tide just kept on coming in, destroying sea walls, bridges and roads and
flooding houses and plantations.
In Kiribati, the bridges linking Tarawa and Betio were destroyed. Kiribati has
now established a task force to oversee management of a $US 253,000 fund for
reconstruction of causeways, roads and other infrastructure destroyed by coastal
On Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands, the airport has been flooded on several
occasions recently, despite an eight-foot sea wall. Throughout the Marshall
Islands, coastal erosion is evident everywhere. While some erosion in more
populated parts can be blamed on inappropriate land use practices, the coasts of
outer islands that have had no development are also crumbling into the sea. Like
virtually all Pacific island countries, the Marshall Islands are ill-equipped to
deal with sea-level rise. An extensive sea wall protection system would cost
more than $US 100 million for Majuro atoll alone, disregarding the protection
needs of the other 28 atolls in the Marshall Islands.
The Marshall Islands' total gross domestic product is just $US 80 million, more
than half of which comes from grants from the United States which could
terminate as early as 2001.
Even if it were economic to build a sea-wall to protect Majuro, it would not be
feasible; a sea wall around the atoll would kill the inner lagoon ecosystem.
This would have flow-on effects on the tuna fishery, which depends in part on
fish which spend their juvenile period in the lagoon.
Rising sea levels have already swamped some motu (small islets) in the Pacific.
In Kiribati, the motu of Tebua Tarawa used to be a landmark for fishermen. Now
it is gone. In Tuvalu, the motu of Tepuka Savilivili has lost its coconut trees
and its sandbanks and the ocean is slowly moving up its remaining rock.
Family Land Crumbles Into Ocean
In most of the Pacific, land tenure systems mean people living on a coastline
that is disappearing beneath their feet cannot move inland, because that land
belongs to other families. So people on the coast in countries like Kiribati and
the Marshall Islands are trying to reclaim their family land, dumping trucks or
other old equipment into the sea and then piling rocks around them to try to
build up their patch of land once more. Outsiders think this is pollution: in
reality, it is an attempt to survive in a changing world.
Changing Climate Hits National Economies
The Pacific's climate is changing, as countries like Federated States of
Micronesia, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga are
only too well aware. All these countries have been hit hard by recent
devastating droughts. In Fiji, drought wiped out some two-thirds of this year's
sugar cane crop, which normally provides 40 percent of export earnings. Tonga's
squash crop, which produces about half that country's exports by value, was more
than halved. In Papua New Guinea, Australia spent more than $A30 million
delivering food aid to people in isolated areas in the highlands and low-lying
islands, many of whom were close to starvation. The drought substantially
reduced Papua New Guinea's important coffee harvest. In FSM, almost 40 atolls
ran out of water and the capital, Pohnpei, was reduced to living off brackish
underground water and shipping water to neighboring atolls. In the Marshall
Islands the United States brought in desalinization plants to provide water for
the population. In Samoa, fires sparked by the unusually dry conditions
destroyed large areas of forest on the island of Savai‘i.
Changes In Fisheries
Pacific people traditionally depended on the ocean to supply most of their
protein requirements. Over the centuries they developed a wealth of knowledge
about when and where to fish. In recent years, however, the fish have not been
found where traditionally they would be expected. The currents have changed, and
so have the locations of the fish. In Papua New Guinea, for example, on Manus
Island, people traditionally catch large hauls of tuna in October. They use this
not only for their own sustenance, but also to sell to the country's fish
markets. Last year the tuna did not arrive.
Warmer Temperatures Bring More Mosquito-Borne Diseases
Throughout the Pacific, malaria and dengue fever, both mosquito-borne diseases,
are increasing. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the past ten years have seen
outbreaks of malaria in the highlands, 2000 meters above sea level, where
previously it was too cold for malarial mosquitoes to survive. The same is true
of the highlands of the Solomon Islands, where malaria has also begun to appear.
Malaria and dengue fever are starting to appear in New Caledonia. Previously
there was no malaria there and virtually no dengue. But now, at some times of
the year, there are outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever in New Caledonia. Fiji
and Samoa also are now suffering outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever which are
far more severe than they have ever been before.
For some, the battle against a changing climate and rising sea levels has become
too much, particularly when these are combined with population pressures.
Environmental refugees are already a reality in the Pacific. Kiribati has begun
an internal resettlement program, moving people from Betio to the outer islands.
Niue recently accepted seven families from Tuvalu who decided to escape from the
increasing risks of living on a low-lying atoll.
The Pacific's Plea
The world's climate scientists have already said human greenhouse gas emissions
are having a discernible effect on global climate. While the Pacific does not
have the expertise to say that the changes it is experiencing now are a direct
result of greenhouse gas emissions, it does know that it is vulnerable now, and
that there is a considerable probability that the risks will only increase in
The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,
which provides for an overall 5.2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
by developed countries, goes nowhere near the 60 - 80 percent reductions which
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said are needed.
As far as the Pacific is concerned, the sooner countries start making the
reductions they have committed to, and accept that much stronger reductions will
be needed, the better the Pacific's chances of surviving the next millennium.
Photographs available on SPREP website: http://www.sprep.org.ws