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Friday, October 7, 2016, 11:45

Pacific nations face watery future

By KARL WILSON in Sydney

Rising sea levels caused by global warming are threatening the development, food security and shorelines of island states

Pacific nations face watery future
Traditional dancers in grass skirts perform at the 47th Pacific Islands Forum in the Micronesian capital Palikir on Sept 8. (AFP)
When leaders sat down for the 47th Pacific Islands Forum in the Federated States of Micronesia between Sept 7 and 11, it was against the backdrop of a rise in sea levels, erosion and coastal flooding that threatens the future of many Pacific island states.

According to research published in the May issue of online journal Environmental Research Letters, five tiny Pacific islands have disappeared as a result of rising sea levels.

The study offers the first scientific confirmation of the impact of climate change on Pacific coastlines.

The islands were part of the Solomon Islands, an archipelago that over the last two decades has seen annual sea levels rise as much as 10 millimeters, according to the report.

It noted that the islands, ranging in size from 1 to 5 hectares, were not inhabited by people. Six other affected islands had large “swaths of land washed into the sea”, it added, and entire villages were destroyed on two of those.

These islands supported dense tropical vegetation at least 300 years old. Nuatambu Island, home to 25 families, has lost more than half of its habitable area, with 11 houses washed into the sea since 2011, according to the research.

Simon Albert, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland and one of the authors of the report, said the research “confirms numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people”.

Previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have found that islands can actually keep pace with sea-level rise and sometimes even expand, according to the report.

“However, these studies have been conducted in areas of the Pacific with rates of sea level rise of 3 to 5 mm per year — broadly in line with the global average of 3 mm per year.

“For the past 20 years, the Solomon Islands have been a hotspot for sea-level rise. Here the sea has risen at almost three times the global average, around 7-10 mm per year since 1993,” the report said. This higher local rate is partly the result of natural climate variability.

“These higher rates are in line with what we can expect across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century as a result of human-induced sea-level rise.”

Melchior Mataki, who chairs the Solomon Islands National Disaster Council, said the rising sea levels call for support from development partners and international financial mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund.

“This support should include nationally driven scientific studies to inform adaptation planning to address the impacts of climate change in the Solomon Islands.”

Addressing the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Hawaii in September, Mataki outlined how the Solomon Islands are now working toward more integrated ocean planning and management.

The congress was told the Pacific island states faced a “climate crisis” with rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, coastal inundation, increases in sea surface temperature and ocean acidification.

Walter Kolkma, director of independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), said that climate change is another “heavy burden that small Pacific island countries far from global markets must shoulder”.

Speaking to China Daily Asia Weekly, he said that the islands’ main economic challenge is growth, “which has been neither strong nor sustained in recent decades”.

Kolkma said Pacific countries receive the highest levels of development aid in the world on a per capita basis, but this has not been sufficient to overcome the obstacles to development that they face, including adapting to climate change.

“Economic activity in the Pacific is set back by frequent and violent weather-related disasters,” he said.

“Scientists are careful not to link specific events to climate change, but the global increase of storms, floods, and drought cannot be ignored — and Asia and the Pacific are bearing the brunt.

“The problem for Pacific island countries is that they lack the resources to tackle climate change and disaster risk management at the needed scale.”

Research quoted in a 2015 independent evaluation study on ADB support to small Pacific island countries noted that losses from damage caused by weather-related disasters on small economies are not just short-term, with post-cyclone incomes not recovering for 20 years, “effectively pushing the GDP trajectory downwards”.

A recent ADB study on climate resilience in the Pacific said the number of hurricane-strength cyclones has increased in the southwest Pacific in the past 50 years, with an average of four events now occurring each year.

The Cook Islands, for example, experienced five cyclones within one month in 2005, three of which were classified as Category 5. Previously, the Cook Islands could expect one storm of this magnitude about every 20 years.

“Natural disasters and movements in the prices of food, fuel and other commodities have a disproportionate impact on small economies, and their capacity to withstand them is limited,” according to the independent evaluation by the ADB.

It noted that spikes in food prices in Pacific island countries during the 2008-09 global food, fuel and financial crises were well above increases in East Asia.

Climate change threatens the productivity and viability of both inshore and deepwater fisheries — an important source of livelihood in the region — with changes in ocean temperatures and currents, and high atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide raising the acidity of seawater.

Aquaculture, a developing industry in the Pacific, will be highly vulnerable to changing rainfall patterns, through increased sediment and flooding in some ponds and drought affecting others, the ADB study noted.

“Pacific island countries are at the sharp end of climate change on several fronts,” said Kolkma.

“Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of some low-lying atoll islands and coastal communities, and lives and livelihoods are being put on the line by the marked rise in the frequency and severity of weather-related disasters.”

Climate change also threatens food security in the region through many channels, including changing rainfall patterns and drought.

“Pacific island leaders have been very active in sending an SOS to the international community to act on climate change and help their countries — which do not have the resources of the developed world — to adapt to climate change,” said Kolkma.

The ADB’s independent evaluation study noted that coastal communities and atoll islands are particularly vulnerable to even small changes in climate variables, with increased storm surges and drought already causing “significant problems”, including fresh water shortages.

In 2011, for example, Australia and New Zealand provided fresh water and desalination units to Tuvalu, an independent island nation in the Pacific, which was grappling with a severe drought.

The ADB study noted that environmental problems in the Pacific islands — mainly pressures from rapid population growth, unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and coastal development — combined with climate change impacts pose major threats to the region’s food, water and livelihood security.

“Pacific island countries are at extreme risk from rising sea levels caused by global warming,” according to the ADB’s independent evaluation study.

“Many are only a few meters above sea level, and more than half the population live within 1.5 kilometers of the shore. A sea level increase of as little as half a meter, along with increased incidents of storm surges, would threaten livelihoods.”

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