ENVIRONMENT: Climate change already affecting islanders, says report

by Jan Sinclair

APIA, Independent State of Samoa (PINA Nius Online): January 11, 2002 - Pacific islands communities are already being forced to move their villages inland, as sea levels rise and storms become more savage.

Participants at a workshop on local perspectives on climate variability confirmed meteorological observations that the Pacific climate is changing, according to a workshop report. They said the changes were so potentially dangerous that they could not afford to wait for any greater scientific certainty, the report said.

Representatives from seven Pacific Islands countries took part in the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies workshop, held last month in the Samoan capital, Apia.

Nelson Rarua, from the Vanuatu Meteorological Office, said in some Vanuatu villages, especially on the smaller islands, rising seawater is now seeping under the island, and coming up underneath the villages. He said people living on those islands are resisting relocation.

"Their chief has told them to move but the funny thing is, they haven't," Mr Rarua said. "But given the rate of sea intrusion, it's only a matter of time."

Simon Saulei, from the University of Papua New Guinea, said similar problems were arising in his country. He said people found it unthinkable to move off their family land, where they'd lived for thousands of years. "If they go to someone else's land, they lose their identity," Mr Saulei said. "You get all sorts of follow-on social and health problems."

He said, however, that changes in climate were forcing such considerations. "In the last 15 years we've had heavier rain and more erosion, and new roads built with overseas aid dollars are getting washed out."

Participants at the workshop said climate change brought two particular kinds of risks to Pacific island countries. Extremes like storms, droughts, floods and erosion would become more severe.Gradual increases in average temperature and sea level would cause accelerating problems when they passed certain critical thresholds. Past a certain temperature threshold, for example, Peruvian researchers have found that childhood diarrhoea hospital admissions rise eight per cent for every degree Celsius rise.

Workshop participants detailed the past resilience of Pacific islands communities in the face of cyclone, storm surge and drought. However, they also spoke of how the resilience of people living on small islands only one to two metres high could be sapped by too many disasters piling up too close together.