Whilst the industrial world is engrossed in economic growth and prosperity, the negative impacts of their obsessions are inevitably felt the world over. The industrial world has contributed markedly to greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming. Sadly enough, whether a country is a party to such emission or not, the effects are inescapable.
Global warming is making its presence felt amongst the island dwellers in the Lau Lagoon off the north-east tip of Malaita in the Solomon Islands archipelago. The people of Lau have survived on their man-made island homes for centuries. However, these islands are facing an existential threat emanating from climate change.
The rise in sea levels and erratic weather patterns make these islanders no longer safe in homes so intimate with the sea. As a result, the residents have no choice but to flee the ever-deteriorating impacts that climate change has brought on their island environments. “The unusual changes in the weather are visiting us more frequently nowadays and are battering our island homes at ferocities never experienced before,” Merrian Dolaiasi told me. Increasing numbers of these once boisterous and vibrant island homes now lay uninhabited and most have fallen into disrepair. Some islands could barely make it above water during high tides whilst others are distinguishable only by the thick vegetation that has now claimed these islands.
Lawrence Dolaiasi of Ferasiofa Island said that he has noticed an exceptional rise in tides recently. He added that tides are unusually high, unpredictable and irregular. “Like the weather, the tide is losing its pattern,” he said. Of the chain of man-made islands that lined the coastal waters of Lau, only a few are inhabited whilst most are crumbled under the relenting waves generated by the surging tides that rushed into the lagoon every-day. The villagers are overwhelmed by the threats poise by the sea. “It’s sad to see this once iconic feature of Lau abandoned to the mercy of the rising waters,” Mr. Dolaiasi lamented.
“We used to build low thatched houses on these islands because of our exposure to the prevailing winds. Nowadays, however, houses are built high on stilts increasing our vulnerability to cyclonic wind phenomenon,” he said. Mr. Dolaiasi added that they have no choice because ground-level homes are susceptible to inundation during high tides. High tidal surges could easily flood the islands. “Impacts of such tides are far more devastating during the night because one would then stand no chance of rescuing any property of value to the family,” he added.
The 63 years old Dolaiasi said that he used to know the seasons. “Now, the rain, the wind, the cyclones can come at any-time,” he said pointing to a spot of storm cloud brewing over the horizon. He mentioned that the unpredictable weather system has affected scheduled repair and maintenance work to their thatched homes. “Often the season and the weather change without notice and we can only scramble to tie any loose knots or patch any leakages with sewn sago leaves in the whim of the moment,” he said.
Mr. Dolaiasi added that because of the change in the weather pattern, seasonal crops that they relied on for survival such as yam and pana are adversely affected. “Continuous rain with intermittent thundery weather during planting seasons means that a bumper harvest is doubtful,” Ms. Dolaiasi interjected. She added that some fruit trees are no longer bearing fruit and the coastal swamps that used to host their swamp taro patches are devastated by saltwater intrusion killing their crops in the process. Coastal wells and streams that the island residents depended on for survival are either dried up due to extreme temperatures or suffer as a result of saltwater intrusion.
“We are living in fear of extreme weather events on a daily basis – tsunamis and king tides are sure to decimate these islands and people should such phenomenon ever strikes,” Ms. Dolaiasi stressed. She further adds that the seasons now cannot be relied upon and to people whose survival depends very much on what they harvest daily is a huge blow. Due to erratic seasons, crops no longer yield as much and people are resorting to pesticides and fertilizers to maintain a good harvest. For these island residents, such an expense is a huge burden on already a struggling population.
Dolaiasi passionately articulated that climate change does not only affect the weather but, everything else connected to it such as the sea, the land, and the food we eat and even humans. This has affected the dietary pattern of the people on the islands from local to a more westernised lifestyle that relies heavily on processed food items such as rice and canned foods.
Ms. Dolaiasi also mentioned that the unreliable weather system is also impacting their children’s education. “I often ask my grandchildren not to go to school sometimes because of the weather,” she said. It is dangerous for children to attend schools as they have to paddle/sail to the mainland and back each day from the island. Storms brew without notice and can come at any-time and often happen so quickly. “Although the children are skilled swimmers, anything can happen especially in ferocious weather conditions,” Ms. Dolaiasi added.
These dangers, together with the worsening conditions on the islands are pushing the residents to search for new land on the mainland of Malaita to settle. However, such a move also has its drawbacks. The potential for disputes over land between the villagers on the man-made islands and those inland are real and explosive. Moving to the mainland would trigger tensions between ethnic groups over the limited jobs and resources available. Mr. Dolaiasi said that out of fear of creating a problem for oneself, a growing number of island residents are opting to move to urban areas especially Honiara, leaving behind their unique cultures and traditions that have long shaped who they are.
By SAMSON SADE