17 Jul 2016

Insight: Fighting the Pacific's Rising Seas

From Insight, 8:12 am on 17 July 2016

People living on the tiny Pacific islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu are fighting against rising seas for their very existence. How should the region prepare for its uncertain future, and what can be done to help?

Beach and traditional hut surrounded by wall of tyres

A man in Eita Village carries freshwater to his home, protected from the sea by tyre walls. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

The tiny village of Eita sits on the coast of the main island of Kiribati.

Surrounded by mangroves and depressions in the land, the villagers eke out their existence by constantly lifting the level of their floors above the ever-encroaching king tides.

Pastor stands in front of thatched traditional village meeting hall

Eita church pastor Eria Maerere says he used to think rising seas were just a story. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

The senior pastor of the village church, Eria Maerere, says when the community first arrived there in 1980, the king tides were never a problem, but now they regularly inundate their homes.

"When we first heard about the rise of the sea-level, we thought that somebody made up a story, but at the beginning of the year 2000, that's when we begin to realise that it is not a fiction, it is a true story.

"Sometime around the year 2000 we had the first big king tide, where the water swept in and all the floors of the houses were breached with the water.

"All the families had to get up early in the morning because all the water had washed their mats, their pillows and all that."

The United Nations warns that if sea-level rise continues at the current rate, the Pacific atolls of Kiribati and Tuvalu could be completely submerged within decades.

child walks along  unsealed road

A child walks along the main road into Eita Village. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

Professor James Renwick from Victoria University of Wellington says sea levels in the western tropical Pacific have risen faster than just about anywhere on Earth.

"As the sea-level rises even by a few centimetres, a king tide or a storm surge can come much further inland."

It is very hard to predict at what point the low-lying atolls will become uninhabitable, Prof Renwick says.

"One of the things about the way some of these physical systems work in the tropics, the strengthening of trade winds and so on, can actually lead to the accretion of sand on some of the atolls, and some of the islands in the Pacific have actually been observed to be getting bigger.

"So it's a complicated story, but as the sea-level continues to rise and if we don't limit greenhouse gas emissions soon and the rising sea-level accelerates ... then the low-lying atolls could become uninhabitable by the end of the century at the very latest."

Basic local concrete block hospital

Even the local hospital has been inundated by big tides. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

Betio Hospital on Kiribati's main island of Tarawa provides emergency and general medical care, as well as maternity, pharmacy and dental services.

The tiny hospital has suffered flooding from king tides more frequently in the past 10 years, but last February a particularly high tide destroyed its maternity ward, toilet block and part of the sea-wall built to protect it.

Nurse stands smiling in white uniform

Betio Hospital nurse Teri Eromanga says she's worried for her patients. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

A nurse at the hospital, Teri Eromanga, says while staff do get advance notice of when the sea is likely to inundate the wards, she worries for her patients.

"It floods right into the wards, flooded the patients on the floor - we try to lift them onto something, but all their things are wet with the sea.

"We are safe now because we have a sea-wall, but I am worried because the tides get stronger and stronger, that is my worry."

Labour MP S'ua William Sio, who visited Kiribati and Tuvalu earlier this year, says the rising sea is affecting more than just people's homes or commercial property.

"You can't grow food crops properly, or have a fully-functioning agriculture industry, the seawater is [intruding] into the underground freshwater aquifers."

But Mr Sio says the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu are resilient.

MP in selfie on coast line with houses in the background

Labour's S'ua William Sio in Betio Village, Kiribati, earlier in 2016. Photo: Supplied

"They're doing the best they can despite the overwhelming weight that is obviously on the leadership of the country.

"You can sense and feel that weight, they are fighting for the very survival of their countries, they are fighting for the very survival of their people."

Taking the land back

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is working on a major project on Kiribati: the Temaiku Bight reclamation.

If it goes ahead, it will reclaim 327 hectares, lifting land in the area to 2m above current levels.

The early estimates are that it will cost $88 million and can be completed by 2020, but MFAT needs other international partners to help fund the project.

View of tidal inlet

The Temaiku Bight: Part of the area that could be reclaimed if the NZ Aid project goes ahead. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

In Tuvalu, south of Kiribati, the New Zealand government has also been involved in the filling of huge 'borrow pits' on the main island of Funafuti, which were dug by American troops during World War II.

The pits have filled with water, becoming very polluted, affecting groundwater and the quality of life for residents.

Photo looking down rectangular rubbish dump with palms on either side

Rubbish dumps have, in the past, led to the contamination of drinking water. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

New Zealand paid for the rubbish to be compacted and the pits filled, which has resulted in an 8 percent increase in usable land on the island.

Raising the level of the land by a few metres, however, is an interim solution if current sea-level rise projections are correct.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully insists people in the Pacific don't want to leave their land, so aid is best spent helping them live more sustainably.

Labour's S'ua William Sio says government representatives in the Pacific have also told him that migration is a last resort, but that they know they have to think outside the box.

Climate change refugees might not be a serious issue right now, he says - but they will become one, and countries like New Zealand should start preparing for that time.

Islands under threat: Watch Chris Bramwell's video report on Friday for Checkpoint with John Campbell

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