The 16-seater shudders on the breeze.
Below, a small grid of unsealed roads runs through a village of fibro buildings ringed by palm and jungle trees.
A contracting grass airstrip dips at each end into the blue of the Pacific.
It could be the setting for a film about the end of the world. And for the people who live here – and will be forced to leave – it is.
Taro Island: a sometimes picturesque coral atoll adrift in the ocean at the north-western tip of the Solomon Islands.
Barely a kilometre long and less across and almost none of it more than two metres above sea level, it is barely a smudge on a map.
Yet this smudge – with its nearly 600 permanent residents, its hospital, churches (four), school, police station and courthouse – is set to take an unwanted place in history.
Though tiny, it is the capital of the province of Choiseul. Soon it may be the first provincial capital in the world to be abandoned due to climate change.
In the wash of environmental and geopolitical changes that flow from the warming of the planet, Taro is a drop in the ocean.
But it is also an early marker of what lies ahead.
As Peter Dutton joked with Tony Abbott about water lapping at the doors of Pacific Islanders, the people of Taro were weighing warnings that their home would be among the first – of dozens? hundreds? thousands? – of largely blameless communities swallowed by the ocean as sea levels rise.
Plans have been drawn up. The people are ready. But they have a nagging question. Who will pay the hundreds of millions needed to make it happen? They are waiting for an answer.
THE WATER RUSHING
Roswita Nowak already knows what it’s like to abandon her home; she’s done it three times.
Shortly after 8am on April 2, 2007, the mother of eight was making the short stroll from her home at Taro’s northern end to her work in a government office when she was distracted by an unfamiliar sound.
“I looked down [toward the village centre] and could see people running, and then I heard this ‘sssshhhh’, and saw the water rushing.
“Then there was shouting: ‘Tsunami! Tidal wave!’ Everyone started to panic, running. People were shouting, ‘We have to go, leave everything, we’re going now.’ And for the women, the first thing we thought of was our children.”
While others headed for boats on the shore, Nowak dashed for home – a slightly raised four-room house where she had left six of her kids minutes before. She calmed them best she could, and waited.
“I was shaking.”
Soon her husband, Fleming, a police officer, arrived.
He said, “The boat is ready, let’s go.” Their 15-year-old son, Stanislaus, picked up his five-year-old sister, Helena, and everyone ran to the beach at the atoll’s north, where a dinghy was waiting.
“We got into the boat,” Nowak remembers, “and immediately the tide went out and we just sat there on the dry seafloor and had to wait for the water to come back in, not knowing what it would do.”
They were lucky. The water came back forcefully enough to lift them but not tip them out. So they headed about two kilometres east across rough seas to the Choiseul mainland and scrambled up a hill to a small camp used by a logging company.
The evacuation of Taro was messy. There weren’t enough boats so it took more than two hours of trips back and forth.
Some people were dropped off on an exposed coral reef, only for the oscillating sea to return and swamp them up to their chests as they tried to walk to the shore.
The town’s people relocated to the jungle logging camp for five days, largely exposed to the elements. Other parts of the country were much less fortunate. The tsunami, triggered by an earthquake about 160 kilometres south, killed 52.
Reflecting now on that terrifying week, Nowak’s thoughts turn to her children.
Five of them – Stanislaus, now 22, daughters Karen, Sharon and Helena, and young son Norlan, who wasn’t born during the 2007 scare – still live on Taro.
Looking over them one night as the girls cut up root vegetables for dinner, she says: “That was when it really struck us that we can be in trouble.”
The island has been evacuated twice more since, during heavy seismic activity in a week in April last year.
To some extent, this is the risk that comes with life in a low-lying area dissected by geological fault lines.
But the advice from scientists and hard-headed officials is that the risk is worsening rapidly.
Satellite data suggests sea levels in the south-west Pacific are rising up to five times faster than the global average – 7.7 millimetres a year in the capital Honiara, to the south, and up to 16.8 millimetres a year in the ocean to the country’s north.
Not that the locals need to be told.
We find Jackson Kiloe, the province’s energetic and dry-witted premier of 16 years, working in a small corner office of a block in which every door is open to the elements – to the stifling humidity, and the violent downpours that arrive each morning at 11, reliable enough to plan your day around.
“Welcome, welcome,” he says, speaking rapidly. “People need to know about what is happening.”
Raised in the small village of Panarui on the province’s main island, Kiloe moved to Brisbane in the 1990s to work as an aeronautical engineer.
He returned to his homeland when summoned by his father to care for his sick mother. When she recovered, his father encouraged him to consider politics.
In 1999, he won a seat in the local government, moved to Taro, and was immediately chosen by his fellow MPs to be premier. He was 28.
“Looking back, I don’t think he [his father] wanted me to look after my mother. He wanted me to look after my people,” he says.
As the leader of one of the most far-flung provinces in one of the world’s most impoverished countries, Kiloe’s focus has been on development.
Things built on his watch: a diesel generator that for the first time provided grid electricity to the island 13 hours a day, a concrete wharf, hospital wards and a giant indoor sports hall.
But his view on the island’s future, and focus, started to change when the 2007 tsunami hit.
“That was when I was really convinced that we need to leave Taro now.
“If the same devastation happens here that happened in other communities just five minutes from here, all the houses are gone.”
Kiloe had already noticed his island was quickly changing shape. Fifteen years ago Taro’s market had to be moved inland due to the shifting shoreline.
When Kiloe organises a boat to show us where it used to be, we paddle out to near the end of the wharf and he removes his shoes before easing himself in fully clothed. The water line rises to near his neck.
THE HUMAN HAND
The full extent of the danger facing Taro became clear in 2013, when a group of Brisbane environmental consultants were enlisted to run surveys of the area as part of an Australian aid program.
The result was a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan for the island.
Just 5 per cent of its land – two hectares, give or take – is more than three metres above sea level.
Scientific projections say that if a once-in-a-century tsunami were to hit now, this tiny platform may – may – be safe for whoever could reach it and was prepared to ride their luck.
By the end of the century, when that tsunami will be about a metre higher, they won’t have a chance.
Philip Haines, who as project leader with consultants BMT WBM visited the island repeatedly, says the people are under no illusions about what they facing.
“Due to no fault of their own, this place they have developed will become vulnerable and if they stay living there they will face a genuine risk to their lives.”
As always, climate change driven by greenhouse gases is interacting here with natural forces. Separating the two isn’t necessarily straightforward, but scientists say the human hand is already evident.
They cannot say with confidence that tropical cyclones in the area will become more intense due to climate change, but they know that storms are heading further south.
When we arrive, the people of Choiseul are counting the cost of tropical cyclone Raquel, which took at least one life and destroyed homes, palm plantations and seaweed crops at the start of July.
Along Taro’s shore, recently felled trees lie in the ocean waiting to be cleaned up.
It is, by several months, the latest in the season a cyclone has hit the area – a reflection, meteorologists say, of changing atmospheric patterns and ocean temperatures being the warmest on record.
Geoffrey Pakipota was home when Raquel hit. He watched the sea wash up to his door, knock down a stone wall and some trees, and scuttle part of his wife Letcia’s raised flower garden.
“It was very intense,” he says, overlooking the damaged shoreline one afternoon.
“We are now very worried. We are on alert, and we don’t sleep.”
A two-minute walk to the south and we are at Pakipota’s office. As deputy provincial secretary, he is second-in-charge of the local bureaucracy.
His office, 10 metres along the verandah from the Premier’s, is wallpapered with what has become his life’s work – plans for a new, bigger capital.
Known as Choiseul Bay Town, to be built in the spot where Taro residents sheltered from the tsunami threat eight years ago.
It includes a town centre, areas for homes and open space, agriculture and forestry, schools and a hospital, a port and a cemetery.
It is the culmination, on paper at least, of an old idea.
Pakipota started work on the new town project in 1994. Until recently, it has been work carried out in a vacuum, with only a little support from Honiara.
On the day we meet, he was due to fly to the capital to present the final plans to the national government for approval, until word came through that his wife’s father had died.
He tells us this only after we have spent two hours together going over the proposal. He quietly makes his apologies and leaves to spend time with his family. His boss, provincial secretary John Tabepuda, steps in.
Where the Premier is a mix of ebullience and exasperation when discussing his people’s plight, Pakipota is taciturn.
But today he sees some cause for optimism that the plans will become a reality.
“The big question is capital – it is going to be very, very expensive.”
THE POLITICAL VACUUM
In December, the world comes together in a bid to wrangle an unprecedented global agreement to cut emissions and help the poor and disadvantaged prepare for what is to come.
Countries are promising emissions cuts that, experts say, would still lead to between 3 and 4 degrees of warming this century – disaster for places like Taro.
Even if a better deal emerged, it may not save low-lying islands: roughly 1 degree of warming, and significant sea level rise – from thermal expansion and melting glaciers and ice sheets – is considered locked in.
Low-lying Pacific states are speaking up in the international debate on how to respond. Several made headlines this month by calling for an end to coal mining, and for Australia and New Zealand to take on much more aggressive climate targets.
But the Solomon Islands is not among the vocal, and that is a problem for Taro.
Honiara is only just emerging from more than a decade of political turmoil, sparked by ethnic tensions that spilled over into murder and lawlessness.
It is riven with corruption, inwardly focused and – though Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is an experienced hand in his third stint as national leader – largely absent from international debate.
One of the foundation stones of a Paris climate agreement is the Green Climate Fund, a war chest to help developing countries cut emissions and deal with unavoidable change.
While more than $US10 billion has been pledged by 30 countries (including $200 million from Australia), it is well short of the target of $100 billion a year by 2020.
And in any case, say most observers, Honiara is in such disarray that it fails to pay much attention to remote provinces that few people visit, such as Choiseul, let alone international processes.
Taro’s plight was noticed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who mentioned it in a speech last year but, to win funding, national governments need to apply and lobby.
Otherwise, there is little chance of the West stepping in. To put the stasis in perspective: the Solomon Islands government advertised for a full-time project manager to work on Taro’s relocation two years ago. It is yet to fill the position.
A MOMENT IN TIME
When Taro goes, here is what will be lost:
• Three streets with no names, or cars – one between the airstrip and landfill site that take up nearly half of available space, the other two either side of a town centre of fibro shacks, mostly built when it became a regional hub in the 1970s.
• A handful of shops (those fibro shacks) each selling an interchangeable mix of a small collection of staples – rice, noodles, tuna, biscuits and overpowering fluorescent red concoction that claims to be jam.
• A cleared grassy area used as a soccer pitch.
• The new market – a basic pergola over two short row of benches that comes to life at 6am each day, trading in taro, cassava, coconuts, bananas, crabs and fish. On our final morning, the goods for sale include a giant turtle, wounded but still alive, having been illegally speared the night before.
• Homes, mostly built at the island’s highest point (high, of course, being relative). A handful are elaborate and raised on stilts; most are publicly owned, modest and low slung. At the apex, an unfinished four-bedroom residence towers metres above everything else. Once complete, it will be the premier’s official residence – though not for long.
The provincial government recently decided there was no longer a point in spending on new infrastructure on the island.
A NEW CAPITAL
We take a short trip in a fibreglass dinghy piloted by a man called Anderson (who wears a Hawthorn singlet but has never heard of the AFL) to get a sense of the challenge that lies ahead.
Roswita Nowak is our guide.
The site chosen for Choiseul Bay Town could hardly be less welcoming – swampy forest and mangroves divided by the Sui River, which is home to hidden crocodiles.
Nowak declares, “This is the jungle.”
There is a secondary school, but it needs moving so a wharf can be built. There is a wooden bridge that needs replacing.
Otherwise, beyond the whir of flying fish off the coast and the brilliant blue of an occasional kingfisher along the Sui, there is nothing. Choiseul Bay Town will need to start from scratch.
The site was chosen because there was no choice. Land in the Solomons is overwhelmingly held by customary owners.
The town site was a rare exception – as the former property of a logging company, it was the only spot available. The province had it valued at about $A250,000, but ended up agreeing to pay $1.6 million.
Though the challenges seem insurmountable, Kiloe and Pakipota are positive.
They say work should start next year. But roadblocks are already in view: national government funding for the first year of works is about half the $1 million needed.
After we leave, word comes through that the national government has approved the final plans and will gazette them this year. But the request for more money has been ignored.
THE BIG PICTURE
Taro is not alone. In Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands, small low-lying communities have been making very public pleas for help for more than a decade. Some have been relocated.
In Kiribati, a collection of 33 atolls across an area the size of Australia, the population is moving to the main island of Tarawa, not least because it has become difficult to grow crops on smaller atolls due to salt inundation.
According to the World Bank, Tarawa itself is likely to at least a quarter under water by mid-century.
There are other examples. But how the world responds to a project the size of the Taro relocation will be a litmus test.
Rumours about solutions abound, some less likely than others.
Aid agencies may step in with some cash to fund specific parts of the new development; neighbouring PNG may offer money as compensation for the Solomons taking in refugees during the Bougainville civil war.
Neither would add up to anything like what is needed.
Philip Haines, of BMT WBM, says the Green Climate Fund should be the answer.
“There is a clear message here to the Western world of the impacts of climate change and who is causing it, and the West needs to think about what it will do about it.”
Certainly, there is no talk of the Green Climate Fund or the Paris summit on Taro. At the island’s northern end, there is a narrow channel across to Supizae, a less developed twin atoll that is also to be abandoned for Choiseul Bay Town.
The water between the two islands is a seductive translucent aqua, and north of 25 degrees.
You could attempt to wade across at low tide, but we cross the same way everyone does – by blue gondola, as if in Venice, piloted by a nine-year-old named Faustino.
His family owns the canoe; they make a healthy living carrying scores of passengers each day for a gold coin a head. When there are no passengers, Faustino spends his time spearfishing in the shallows.
Sitting on the Supizae beach taking in this scene is as close to the romanticised vision of Pacific life as you are likely to find.
The passersby we speak with accept it is also a way of life that is disappearing.
That the threat of big waves is rising. That the picture-perfect calm channel will dissolve into the ocean. And they will have to move.
They just don’t know how.
By ADAM MORTON
· The Vanishing Island is part of Climate for Change, a Fairfax Media series on global warming.