What is there to celebrate about the new millennium if our island nations are about to disappear beneath the ocean, says the writer.

By Tomari’i Tutangata

June 2000

As a 10-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.

What is there to celebrate about a new millennium 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 about to disappear beneath the ocean?

The Pacific’s 22 countries and territories are strung out across 11 million square miles of ocean and contain some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. They are inhabited by cultures that have lived harmoniously in an often difficult and fragile environment for many thousands of years.

Pacific island countries have contributed just 0.06% to global greenhouse gas emissions. But now, the 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 ancient oral history 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 where they could beach their boats and slake their thirst on coconut water. Then the coconut palms disappeared,  and after that the sandbanks, and now the fishing boats skim over the islet, which is totally submerged. Abanuea, once called ‘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 sandbanks have also disappeared. Its coconut trees have gone, and the ocean is slowly swallowing the 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 1 inch each year, well above the global estimate of a tenth-of-an-inch annual rise made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Satellite data have validated these findings, showing a 0.8-inch to 1.2-inch per year sea-level rise in a region stretching from Papua New Guinea southeast to Fiji.

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

In both 1997 and 1998, unusual storm surges in Kiribati and the Republic of the Marshall Islands destroyed seawalls, bridges, causeways and roads.

Coastal erosion is a continuing problem in most low-lying Pacific islands. Some can be blamed on poor land-use, but the undeveloped coasts of outer islands are also eroding. These recent changes in climate and sea level are also creating major problems for water supplies and food production in the Pacific.

In 1998, 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, normally 40% of its export earnings, fell by two-thirds. Tonga’s squash crop, about half of its export earnings, was cut in half.

Australia spent more than A$30 million delivering food to people of Papua New Guinea, near starvation in isolated areas of the highlands and on low-lying islands. In Micronesia, almost 40 atolls ran out of water and the capital, Pohnpei, was reduced to drinking from its brackish underground supplies.

Rising seawater is seeping into the soil of low-lying atolls, making it too salty for growing staple root crops. People who for millennia have grown taro, pulaka or yams in poor soil by planting them in compost pits, for example, are now growing them in compost inside containers such as old kerosene cans.

Among other Pacific changes: Fisheries are altering because ocean currents have changed, and the fish have moved with them. Traditional knowledge about finding fish no longer holds true. Meanwhile, malaria is taking hold in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; previously it was too cold for malaria-carrying mosquitoes to survive.

Science has not yet decided whether the changes in El Nino’s patterns are a result of climate change or simply a normal variation. Until the past decade, research was only sparsely applied in the Pacific; indications of present change are based largely on anecdotal evidence. But just as you do not tell a person staring at her 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 to ignore the disturbing changes they are now experiencing.

Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity have already committed the Pacific region to an inevitable rise in sea level. An Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) study has determined that the pollutants emitted before 1995 have already forced an inevitable 2 to 4.7-inch sea-level rise that will peak around 2020 to 2025.

If the world’s nations met their commitments to reduce emissions made as part of the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997, and then in 2020 effectively ceased all emissions thereafter - even under this optimistic scenario, the seas would rise by 5.5 to 12.6 inches by about 2050. Many  Pacific island countries are only 3 to 7 feet above sea level.

Countries have so far failed to meet even the minimal commitment they made under the Climate Convention of the 1992 Earth Summit: to return their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The IPCC has estimated that cuts of 60-80% will be needed to stop global warming.

Committed global action remains the main hope. The sooner countries start implementing the reductions they have committed to, and accept the reality that much stronger cuts will be needed, the better the Pacific islands’ chances will be of surviving the current millennium. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Tomari’i Tutangata is Director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. The above article is reprinted from Our Planet, the magazine of the UN Environment Programme [P O Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya,].