Pacific Islanders become first official climate refugees

Rising seas and frequent flooding have forced a small community in the Pacific island chain of Vanuatu to leave their homes and become one of the first examples of formal climate change refugees.

The villagers, from the Lateu settlement, have been relocated into the interior of Tegua under a project entitled “Capacity Building for the Development of Adaptation in Pacific Island Countries”.

Taito Nakalevu, climate change adaptation officer with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) which carried out the work with funding from the Canadian government, said the villagers were moved to grounds 600 metres from the coast and 15 metres above sea level.

“We are seeing king tides across the region flooding islands. These are normal events, but it is the frequency that is abnormal and a threat to livelihoods. People are being forced to build sea walls and other defences not just to defend their homes, but to defend agricultural land,” he said.

Over recent years rates of flooding have increased, triggering a variety of problems including increased malaria and skin diseases among children as a result of more standing water for mosquitoes to breed in.

Erosion rates around the village had also accelerated to between two and three metres a year and seas frequently breached the one metre high coral reef which acted as the only line of defence for the island.

The main problem for relocation had been fresh water supplies, as the coastal strip had fresh water springs at low tides. However, under the project water tanks, able to harvest rain water, have been supplied and installed in the interior. The six tanks are able to hold 6,000 litres each, giving a total freshwater supply of 36,000 litres.

Rainwater harvesting mechanisms have also been installed on the roofs of buildings feeding into the tanks.

Details of the scheme which was completed at the end of August this year were unveiled at a meeting organised by the UNEP’s polar centre in Norway this week.

Klaus Toepfor, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “The peoples of the Arctic and the small islands of this world face many of the same threats as a result of climbing global temperatures, the most acute of which is the devastation of their entire ways of life.”

“The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storm surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which will eventually touch everyone on the planet. The plight of these vulnerable peoples should be a clear signal to governments meeting here in Montreal that we must hurry up if we are to avert a climate-led catastrophe for current and future generations,” he added.

Other vulnerable areas include mountain regions where the melting glaciers are creating huge lakes, whose mud, stone and soil banks could burst sending huge quantities of water down gulleys and valleys.

This threat is particularly acute in the Himalayas where studies by UNEP in collaboration with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have found 50 glacial lakes of concern to Nepal and Bhutan.

UNEP is seeking further funding for this initiative through the Global Environment Fund to help pin point more newly formed glacial lakes at risk of triggering floods and to develop early warning systems for such events.

“At least in the case of this community on Tegua,” Mr Nakalevu said, “we know that for the next 50 years, the community of Lirak will be safe from floods, tsunamis and storm surges.

David Hopkins

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie