Published on Thursday, December 21, 2006 by the London Times / UK
The Last Tide Could Come at Any Time.
Then These Islands at the End of the Earth Will Simply Vanish
Blame it on global warming or a submerged volcano.
Either way, the low-lying atoll seems doomed - and it is not the only one
by Richard Lloyd Parry on the Carteret Islands
It begins with the simple rising of the tide in the lagoon, above the flashing coral, and high up the beach where the thin canoes lie. Soon water is breaching the frail sea walls and running over the coconut palms and the dusty pathways of the village. The sea laps at the houses of palm and wood; in the middle of the islands saltwater bubbles up through holes dug by the crabs and floods the fields and gardens until half the land is swallowed up.
It happens every few months. But however many times they have seen it before it is never any the less terrifying for the people of the Carteret Islands. “The kids run around crying,” says Selina Netoi, who lived through the experience last year. “People try to comfort them and they carry them and leave everything else behind. I have seen houses washed away — swish! — and everything inside them. We are helpless when this thing happens. We can’t save anything.”
Every year the tidal surges are becoming stronger and more frequent; every month, a few more inches are being eaten away from the shrinking land of the tiny islands. It happened last March, it happened again in September and it may happen again tonight under the tug of the new moon.
The people of the Carteret Islands — among the smallest, most beautiful and most remote inhabited islands in the world — are hungry and afraid. Since the sea poisoned their fruit trees, their children have lived on an unbalanced diet of fish and coconuts and their pot bellies and the yellowing tips of their black hair hint at malnutrition. Most of them are desperate to leave and plans are being drawn up to move them to higher, safer ground on the larger island of Bougainville, 120km (75 miles), across the water. But however blighted the lives of the 2,600 Carteret islanders are, this is a problem far greater than just for them. The Carterets are a portent of catastrophe to come — not only for the other low lying atolls of the South Pacific, but for low-lying coastal communities across the world, from Bangladesh to New Orleans. If environmental scientists and campaigners are correct, the rising seas are the result of global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gasses. Some time next year the islanders will become the world’s first climate-change refugees; within a few years, barring a dramatic reversal, their home will literally go down in history as the first inhabited territory in the world to be swallowed up by global warming.
“We have no cars and no factories and no aeroplanes,” says Bernard Tubin, a leader on the island of Piul. “We are the victims of this greenhouse-gas emission and we are totally innocent. America sends someone to the Moon, wars are being fought and millions are being spent on warheads and ammunition. So why is it that Russia and the US and Japan and Australia cannot do anything to help us?” Even by the standards of Papua New Guinea, the anarchic nation of mountains, jungles and islands north of Australia, the Carteret Islands are about as remote as can be. From the capital, Port Moresby, you fly to the island of Buka in the autonomous province of Bouganville. After an 11-hour journey by fishing boat, you see six crinkly indentations emerge on the horizon. They are perched on the lip of a circular reef, none at their highest point more than 170cm above sea level. These are the Carterets, the islands at the beginning of the end of the world.
They are named after a British naval captain, a contemporary of Captain Cook, who came across them in 1767. Two and a half centuries later, the most modern charts still mark them in the wrong place. Philip Carteret described them as “scarce better than large rocks”, and during the Second World War a Japanese bomb obliterated one of the smaller islets.
The silhouettes of a few wrecks jut above the circular coral atoll, most of them fishing boats from Taiwan, which plundered the giant clams that used to litter the sea bed. But nothing in the history of the Carterets has been as momentous as their continuing destruction. There have been high tides and coastal erosion for decades, but it was not until the 1980s that they were identified as a cause for long-term anxiety. The population was expanding and at first this seemed to be the cause of overcrowding. But then islanders who had been away for a few years began noticing that areas that had previously been land were under water. “When I was a small boy this shore began out there,” Mr Tubin says, pointing to a spot 150 metres out to sea. “One year ago it was five metres out from here. There were houses here, and fruit trees.”
The authorities erected a series of sea walls of heaped up giant clam shells and wire cages stuffed with coral; their rusting remnants litter the islands. A team of Australian botanists tried to plant stands of mangrove, which bind coastlines with their tough roots; but few of the trees survived.
The Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) had bigger things to worry about in the shape of a civil war that raged on the island of Bougainville throughout the 1990s. “We have to rely on the national Government of PNG,” Mr Tubin says. “But PNG is a dysfunctional, failed state.” In the 1980s the island of Huene was cut in two by the sea and its twin, Iolasa, is quickly going the same way.
“When the tides rise this place is shoulder-deep in water,” Mr Tubin says about an expanse of drying mud that was formerly rich bush. “There are stingrays and sharks swimming around. And when the water goes down, the place is wet and stinking and there is rubbish all over the place. Then the mosquitoes breed in the water, and the children get malaria and diarrhoea.”
Once this was a jungle “garden” of banana, breadfruit, papaya, cassava, tapioca, sugarcane and the starchy tuber called taro. Now it is a slimy, salinated wilderness where only palm trees grow.
The coconuts they produce, with the lagoon’s plentiful fish, are the only food that the islanders have left. The few wells on the islands have been poisoned by saltwater and are now good only for washing. To drink, the islanders must collect rain in water tanks or rely on coconut milk. Four times a year now, rice and other supplies have to be shipped out by the hard-pressed local government of Bougainville — but the Carteret islanders are down to one meal a day. After a flood, the nurse in the small clinic on the island of Han treats 50 cases of malaria a day. Paul Tobasi, the executive manager of the Atolls District, and a Carteret islander, says: “It’s a hard, hard life. These kids don’t realise how hard it is because they have lived with it all their lives.”
The causes of the crisis are not simple, and there is no doubt that the islanders have unwittingly made their own contribution to the problem. Unlike many tropical reefs, the Carteret atoll seems little damaged by bomb fishing — but the mangroves that once formed a natural sea wall around the islands were stripped away for firewood a generation ago. Islanders speak of smoke and even fire that rises from the centre of the lagoon every few years — if these emerge from a submarine volcano,that may have contributed to the subsidence. But a growing body of research suggests that, however much the land may be sinking, waters are rising across the world, especially in the South Pacific. A report last year by John Church, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, based in Canberra, concluded: “The analysis clearly indicates that sea level in this region is rising. The continued and increasing rate of sea-level rise and any resulting increase or intensity of extreme sea-level events will cause serious problems for some of these islands during the 21st century.”
All but the oldest of the islanders are ready to leave for resettlement on Bougainville — but even this obvious step has become bogged down in delay. During the 1990s, 20 families were relocated to Bougainville, but driven back again by the terror of the civil war. They require assurance that this experience will not be repeated. “Here we move freely, but on Bougainville you have to take your kids everywhere — and even then you get attacked,” Mr Tubin says. “We need land, it must be close to the sea, and close to a reef so that we can fish in our accustomed way.”
The ideal place would be one of the coastal plantations formerly owned by foreign companies and abandoned during the civil war. But complicated legal procedures are required to procure the land for the Autonomous Bougainville Government. Then there is the expense. It is a measure of the Government’s desperation that even modest sums are beyond its reach. “How long before a really big wave?” asks Selina Netoi. “A tidal wave that destroys everything — washes away all the houses, drowns the children. We live in fear here, but we have nowhere else to go.”
Even without such a catastrophe, the sea will not retreat. Soon, perhaps within a decade, the islands will be bisected, quartered and submerged.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service