Small islands in climate peril

Posted: 26 February 2001

Palm-fringed paradise islands and atolls in the South Pacific and the Caribbean are literally in danger of being washed away. Rising sea levels linked to global warming, freshwater shortages, droughts and coral bleaching are taking an economic toll on some of the world's most beautiful small island states. Maya Pastakia reports.

© Earth Times News ServiceAlready, two motu (or small islets), Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, that are part of the Pacific nation of Kiribati have recently disappeared. The country's ancient oral history says that one of them, Tebua Tarawa, was the first motu to be formed in the Tarawa lagoon. Although uninhabited, fishermen used these islets as resting places.

"In Tuvalu, the oceans are similarly reclaiming the motu of Tepuka Savilivili: its once-extensive sandbanks have also disappeared. It's coconut trees have gone, and the ocean is slowly swallowing the remaining rock," reports Tomari'i Tutungata, Director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme in Our Planet.

Today, the islanders of Takuu, an atoll of Papua New Guinea, are awaiting a similar fate. The 400 inhabitants are likely to be the first people in the world to lose their homeland to global warming. According to Geoffrey Lean of The Independent, "The sea is rising around them, the gardens where they grow food are being flooded, and their sand dunes are being swept away.

"Now the islanders, who enjoy a unique culture, where every inhabitant has 1,000 songs he or she can sing from memory, have been told they have at best five years, and at worst a few months, before their homes vanish beneath the waves."

Coastal erosion

"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," warns Tomari'i Tutungata. In the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati, which have some of the most diverse and fragile ecosytems on earth, beaches and coastlines are suffering from widespread erosion and burial sites are crumbling into the sea.

Rising seas

For many, the biggest worry is rising sea levels. The global average sea level has already risen by 10 to 25cm (4 to 10 inches) over the past 100 years, from the thermal expansion of the oceans and melting glaciers attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. Today, many Pacific island countries are only 3 to 7 feet above sea level. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its Third Assessment on Climate Change, has projected a rise in sea levels between 0.09 to 0.88 metres by the year 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current levels.

Sea rise is thought to be exacerbated by the El Niño weather phenonmenon, 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.

Food shortages

Rising sea levels and changing climates are also creating major problems for water supplies and food production in the South Pacific. In 1998, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga suffered devastating droughts. Fiji's sugar can production, normally 40 per cent of it export earnings, fell by two-thirds and 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 isolate areas of highlands and on low-lying islands.

At a the Hague meeting on climate change in November (2000), Al Binger of Jamaica stressed that "when things go bad, things go bad for the little people first. Our water supplies dry up, our aquifiers are becoming saline, our banana crops are destroyed by storms, our beaches are disappearing.

"Beaches are our Fort Knox, our money in the bank, each square metre that disappears is serious in terms of economics."

Salty water

Several islands are facing the pollution of freshwater reserves by seawater making drinking water brackish. According to Tomari'i Tutangata, "rising sea water is seeping into their soil 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." In Tuvalu, many farmers now grow taro in tin cans because encroaching salt water has poisoned their land, according to the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

The 22 countries and territories in the Pacific Ocean have contributed under 0.06 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions but are suffering a disproportionate share of the adverse effects of climate change. The small island states are urging a 20 per cent cut in emission of greenhouse gases as a starting point. However, according to scientists, 80 per cent cuts are required to stabilise the climate. At the Hague meeting on Climate Change, 160 nations struggle to agree on cuts of just 5.2 per cent by 2010 on the 1990 levels. Scientists say that emissions need to be cut by at least 60 per cent if global warming is to brought under control.

Web links:

South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP)

Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS)

Small Island Developing States Network (SIDSnet)