Monday, January 26, 2009

Islands Fight the Tide


Imagine your home is slowly sinking into the sea, and then consider Australia's Pacific neighbours - who don't have to use their imagination.

A recent climate change seminar in Sydney heard that scientists are beginning to recognise the 52 island nations of the South Pacific as the mine canaries of climate change. But that's little consolation for the people whose homes and ancestral lands are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted a sea-level rise of 59 centimetres by 2100. That's enough to submerge some lower lying atolls in the south pacific region.

Despite producing what experts estimate is just 0.3% of the world's principle climate change culprit carbon emissions, these embattled island nations look like wearing 100% of the consequences.

The impact is already being felt in their economies, society and basic livelihoods, says Kosi Latu, deputy director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP).

"They see the changes already. Things are happening, the storm surges, the earthquakes, the frequency of cyclones," Latu said after addressing the Against A Rising Tide conference at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) law faculty.

"The problems are real for the Pacific. They are not imaginary, they are real."

While the big industrialised nations talk about meeting global emission reduction targets, for many islands the fight against climate change is a local one, as they try to mitigate and adapt to changes that are already occurring.

The job is being hampered by lack of resources.

Located off Indonesia's fractured shoulder, the Marshall Islands is made up of 29 atolls and 5 isolated islands spanning less than 200 km.

On March 27, 2007 they declared a state of emergency because of an extreme drought. On July 3 the same year they were hit with an energy crisis that left them nearly broke.

While renewable clean energy might mitigate these problems, Latu says the Marshall Islands can't pay its fuel bills, let alone consider the massive capital investment needed to go green.

"It's totally and 100% reliant on diesel fuel. There's solar energy, but again you need a lot of capital investment in that to get things going," he said.

"They don't have rivers where they can have hydros, or geo-thermal sources of energy so there's very limited options for them."

Economically most Pacific islands' rural communities rely heavily on coral reef fisheries, small-scale agriculture and nature-based tourism.

Rising sea levels and coral bleaching will affect food production and require food importation - costing the islands money they don't have.

Some nations are considering extreme measures to survive.

The Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, caused a minor stir when they proposed in November buying land in other countries to prepare their 300,000 people for mass migration.

A one-metre rise in sea level will almost totally submerge the Maldives 1,192 coral islands scattered off the southern tip of India.

The country's new president Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed suggested in news reports that land could be bought in India and Sri Lanka because of cultural similarity. He said Australia was also an option.

The conference heard that some of the impacts of climate change on South Pacific nations will be so severe that adaptation might be impossible.

Ilona Millar, an environmental lawyer for Baker & McKenzie who also addressed the conference, says the physical characteristics of the island states - being small and very low-lying - make them prone to natural disasters.

"The impacts are so severe it may become impossible to adapt to some of the risks and vulnerabilities that they face," she said.

Atafu Atoll, the smallest island of the Tokelau Islands, consists of just the 3.5 square kilometres of dry land around a 17 square kilometre lagoon.

Lying in the Pacific typhoon belt, each atoll in Tokelau houses just a hospital and a school, with monthly food deliveries and radio communication from Samoa.

Latu says Australia has a moral and ethical responsibility to help out its neighbours.

"I think the starting point is that Australia has already put up $150 Million fund on regional adaptation, which is a good start," says Latu.

He also mentions that there is a principle in international law, "the polluter pays."

"I think there is a moral obligation, an ethical obligation."