Standing on a remote coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean watching children play, it was deeply saddening to realise they will soon have to leave a place that has been home to their people for thousands of years.
Ontong Java, the most northerly part of Solomon Islands, is on the frontline of climate change.
The rising seas are eating away the land and growing food is now almost impossible as salt poisons swamp taro, the staple crop.
After 2000 years of settlement, it is increasingly likely that Ontong Java’s 2000 inhabitants will be its last, and bear the unenviable label of being one of the first communities in the world to be completely resettled as a result of climate change.
I recently travelled to Ontong Java, more than 300km from the Solomons’ main islands, as a guest on an annual trip led by the Anglican Church of Malaita and a provincial health team.
My aim was to see if my organisation, Anglican Overseas Aid, could do anything to support the people of these islands.
I quickly discovered that very little can be done apart from ongoing talks about resettlement between the island communities, the Anglican Church and the Solomon Islands Government.
Days after leaving Ontong Java, I landed in Brisbane to find The Age newspaper had published details of a leaked climate change report that predicted $1 billion in damage to waterfront properties in Victoria over the next 90 years from severe storms and rising sea levels.
The contrast was striking.
Clearly climate change threatens seaside communities all around the world. But here in Australia we have the luxury of time to adapt, and we can also afford it.
The two main ‘waterfront’ communities in Ontong Java – Luaniua and Pelau – are facing increasingly desperate conditions, but it’s happening now, not in 90 years’ time.
Many people have already moved to Honiara, the capital city of the Solomons, and rising seas have also forced movement within communities.
Families in the Pelau community have been squeezed onto one atoll after the houses on another collapsed as the sea eroded the land.
Attempts by the Anglican Church to help communities have only delayed the inevitable.
In Pelau a sea wall was built to combat the rising tides but “the sea is eating it” according to one community member.
The church supported innovative permaculture projects to increase food production but after a single harvest the plants were unable to continue producing. There was simply too much salt.
Though they lack many things, the people of Ontong Java are rich with integrity, they are wise and they are resilient. And they know they have to move.
As one man from Pelau said: “We are wasting our time with adaptation – the sea eats our attempts at adaptation.”
But finding an alternative place to move to is an extremely complex process in Solomon Islands; there are suggestions that they might relocate to the Melanesian island of Malaita, but it is the most heavily populated island in the country and already overwhelmed by disputes over land.
The plight of the people of Ontong Java highlights the complexities of climate change now, and the importance of urgent action to prevent the need for mass relocations into the future.
This action means more investment in helping communities to adapt to the impact of climate change and, where necessary, to relocate in ways that uphold their dignity.
But to prevent more of this sort of thing happening, it’s clear that we have to keep pushing forward with measures to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Anglican Overseas Aid is doing its part to help people in the Pacific through the distribution of portable solar lights.
Along with improving safety and opportunities for night-time study, these lights reduce reliance on high-pollution kerosene lamps and also encourage the green economy as budding entrepreneurs are taught business skills for selling the lights to their communities.
The overall impact on greenhouse pollution may be slight, but it’s a small-scale example of what Australia’s carbon tax is designed to do – reduce reliance on polluting power sources and encourage a greener economy.
Recent Australian electricity production figures suggest that it appears to be working.
It’s too late for the people of Ontong Java, but there’s clearly a ray of hope that should inspire ongoing action to reduce the impact of climate change.
At the end of November world leaders gathered in Doha for the latest round of climate change talks, where they were asked to commit to an extension of the Kyoto protocol – referred to as Kyoto 2 – that will keep the world on track to reducing emissions while a more comprehensive climate change agreement is being negotiated.
Despite many governments refusing to sign on, the Australian Government has provided a great example by going to Doha with a bi-partisan commitment to sign up to Kyoto 2.
But it can’t stop there. Kyoto 2 is a temporary measure while the world negotiates a longer-term climate treaty.
It’s up to our Government to continue to play its part and demonstrate to people all over the world, whether on the Mornington Peninsula or poor communities in the Pacific, that we want to ensure climate change doesn’t wash away any more lives.
Source: Anglican Overseas Aid
Kate Higgins is based in the Solomon Islands as Pacific and Solar Program Manager for Anglican Overseas Aid.