|Rising sea levels threaten small Pacific island nations|
|Dire climate change predictions may
seem like science fiction in many parts of the world. But in the tiny,
sea-swept Pacific nation of Tuvalu, the crisis has already arrived.
Tuvalu consists of nine low-lying atolls totaling just 26 square kilometers, or 10 square miles, and in the past few years the "king tides" that peak in February have been rising higher than ever. Waves have washed over the island's main roads; coconut trees stand partly submerged; and small patches of cropland have been rendered unusable because of encroaching saltwater.
The government and many experts already assume the worst: Sometime in the next 50 years, if rising sea-level predictions prove accurate, the entire 11,800-strong population will have to be evacuated.
The ocean could swallow Tuvalu whole, making it the first country to be wiped off the map by global warming.
But in one respect, the Tuvaluans may actually be the lucky ones - at least compared with some of their Pacific island neighbors. The New Zealand government already takes in a quota of Tuvaluans every year, many of whom have found jobs in the strawberry fields and packing plants around Auckland. And it has assured Tuvalu that it will absorb the entire population if the worst comes to pass.
That is a lifeline that many similarly threatened island nations - including Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Solomon Islands - do not yet have.
While their stories may not be as compelling as Tuvalu's, such nations include atolls that may also vanish. And they depend on vulnerable, low-lying coastal areas for living space, cropland and tourism. For them, even conservative estimates of rising waters look set to make life on once-idyllic islands increasingly nasty, crowded and very, very wet.
"Entire Pacific islands disappearing from inundation is indeed dramatic," said Asterio Takesy, director of the Pacific Regional Environment Program, an intergovernmental organization based in Apia, Samoa. "But a complete loss of livelihoods from decreased fisheries, damaged coral reefs, tourism affected by dengue epidemics, and agriculture destroyed because of changing rain patterns - surely these are just as worthy of our attention."
The region already faces a witches' brew of problems that environmentalists say are being worsened by climate change: coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion onto taro cropland and tourist sites, shortages of potable water, anemic economies propped up by foreign aid, disease, dependence on sugar-packed, processed food imports.
And there are health problems like obesity and diabetes exacerbated by such food imports. A recent World Health Organization survey found that the South Pacific was the world's most overweight region.
"We're not dealing with climate change on its own, because we have an expanding population and so greater stress on resources anyway," said Ashvini Fernando, regional climate change coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund South Pacific Program, based in Fiji. "Climate change makes those stresses so much greater."
Some experts warn that, ultimately, these issues will combine to power a wave of emigrants fleeing the Pacific islands. Indeed, there are already signs of flight: according to a study by the Australian government, applications for New Zealand residency from eligible Pacific island nations shot up sharply in 2005 and 2006, compared with 2003.
Some countries' economies already depend on remittances from islanders who have gone abroad to find jobs, and climate change could swell those numbers. Meanwhile, villages have already been evacuated from low-lying areas in Vanuatu and the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea.
Ben Namakin, an environmentalist and native of Kiribati, says that, in his homeland, saltwater intrusion is already ruining taro patches and spoiling well water, houses are being flooded, coastlines are receding, and a causeway whose beauty he had appreciated since he was a child collapsed last October.
And, as in many such Pacific island nations, there is little higher, habitable land for people to move to.
"I really don't know where they will go," Namakin said in an e-mail interview. "They may move further inland, but the more they do that, they will end up on somebody else's land or reach the ocean on the other side, as the islands are too narrow."
The result could be a resource grab that pushes governments to the breaking point, and a clamor to relocate to developed countries on the Pacific Rim or elsewhere.
"There's going to be an increased demand for migration, as people look for economic opportunities," said Benjamin Preston, an Australian government scientist in marine and atmospheric research. "And as the impact of climate change becomes more severe, that's going to add urgency into the equation."
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