ENVIRONMENT DAY: the world must be ready to help threatened Pacific islanders

Helen Mountfort
5 June 2014
You may think it is just a question of moving a bit more inland. But for a number of SIDs (Small Island Developing states), the rising sea level is a matter of life and death. They’re small countries facing big issues. For some islanders, the prospect of having to find a new home, or even country, is something already at the forefront of their minds.

When I was working and living in Tonga, people knew about climate change but did not always understand what this could mean for their futures. Daily life was about earning enough money so you could feed your children, and put them through school. This is starting to change. And fast.

Covering one-third of the Earth’s surface, the Pacific ocean is as large as all other oceans in the world put together, yet the land mass of its 22 island countries and territories is miniscule in comparison. The coastal areas for people in these small islands states provide food, income and recreation, and shape the Pacific way of life.

However, these areas are threatened with increasing sea levels, hotter temperatures, the decline of mangroves and coral reefs, all of which amplify the islands’ exposure to extreme weather events and other climate-related disasters. 

On January 11 Tonga was hit by category five cyclone called Ian. It passed directly over the Ha’apai island group. Winds more than 200 kilometres per hour battered the island, decimating over 90% of the buildings in Ha’apai.

Food crops and coconut trees were demolished which is what the villagers rely on for food and drink. The total damages and losses is estimated to be about T$38.5 ($20.6 USD). Fortunately, those I knew living in Ha’apai were safe, but lost personal belongings, from toys and clothing to the roofs over their heads.

Destructive events like this are only predicted to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that ‘there is strong evidence that global sea level gradually rose in the 20th century and is currently rising at an increased rate.’ This will have dramatic consequences for SIDs, and the time to act is now.

Today is World Environment Day and the international community is focussing on 'Small Islands and Climate Change'. It is a good time to remind ourselves about this human disaster in the making and look at the options that we still have.

The remoteness and geographic separation of small islands means they have to be active and strategic in determining their own fate.

Over the course of the 21st century, the Pacific Climate Change Science Programme predicts with ‘very high confidence’ that sea-level rise continues in Tonga; and that the intensity and frequency of days of extreme heat will increase.

Additionally, the intensity and frequency of days of extreme rainfall are projected to increase too with ‘high confidence’. And there are a number of other predictions – which point towards the need for urgent action. 

Tonga has been proactive in their approach to tackling climate change with the Environment Management Act 2010, a Renewable Energy Amendment Act 2010 and the Tonga Energy Roadmap 2010 - 2020. But my impression is that more needs to be done to ensure that people on the front line are ready to take on the approaching impacts of sea level rise and climate change.

Tonga needs three things from the international efforts to tackle climate change.

One, immediate emission cuts to avoid the rapid sea level rise form 2040 onwards.

Second, predictable, adequate and long term financial support for the adaptation of Tongan people. This should be provided by those that have caused climate change, not by the victims.

Third, Tonga needs to know how to survive if the worst happens.  They need an armageddon plan if parts of Tonga become impossible to live and work. Is the international community ready to support the relloaction of Pacific Islanders?

2014 is the year of SIDs, let’s make it count.

Helen Mountfort