The Pacific's climate refugees

Al Jazeera meets residents of Tuvalu who may leave their homes to avoid rising seas.

    Rick says islanders are being
    "kicked out of their homes"
    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on Friday may be full of dire predictions but in the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu the situation is already grim.


    Sea levels there have already risen by 10-25 cm in the past 100 years and global warming threatens to raise the oceans higher still.


    Scientists say that higher sea levels could destroy corals and swamp Tuvalu and other low-lying nations in the Pacific, rendering them entirely uninhabitable.


    Some predict a rise of just 40cm in sea levels would be enough to kill off vegetation on the island.


    The new IPCC report lays the blame for climate change squarely on human activity but many of Tuvalu's 10,000 citizens feel they bear little responsibility for the problem yet fear they are soon to be among the world’s first "climate refugees".


    Borrowed time


    The rising sea already threatens Tuvalu from all sides, with the Pacific Ocean biting chunks from one coastline and a large lagoon advancing on the other.


    But perhaps an even more serious problem for the island is the infiltration from underneath its surface which results in so-called "borrow pits".


    Tuvalu's porous foundations are no match for the ocean’s power as it percolates to the surface.


    Borrow pits are so named because the coral that was dug up, or temporarily "borrowed" to build a runway during World War 2 was supposed to be returned but never has been. 

    "Borrow pits" threaten the
    foundations of many homes

    Paani Laupepa, the country's secretary for foreign affairs, says that because Tuvalu is only 26 square km in area there is simply nowhere for people to escape the problems.


    "There's no mountains to climb to." he says. "The best you can do is strap yourself onto a coconut tree and hope for the best you know cause that's the highest point on this land."


    Those that can afford to, build houses on stilts but many islanders just deal with the problems one day at a time.


    Iefata Paeniu's house occupies one of the most vulnerable positions inside the borrow pits.


    The last king tide soaked his floor but he is not planning to move.


    "I've always thought that this is where I belong. I’ll see how I cope with it, its quite difficult but something that I think I will live with," he says managing to laugh.


    But among the younger generation there are plenty who want to leave.

    Destination unknown

    Rick Taupo is one islander who made up his mind when the last big storm sent waves crashing into his parent’s front garden.

    "I truly want to be overseas so that my kids will be safe my grandkids will be safe and you know we won’t face any danger like this," he says.


    Many islanders, keen to escape to higher ground, believe- as do many environmentalists -  they should be accorded refugee status and all the immigration benefits included therein.


    But there remains an issue of who would take in any future climate refugees.


    New Zealand currently accepts 75 Tuavluans each year as part of a Pacific Access Category, agreement reached  in 2001.


    Not all Tuvaluans can afford homes on stilts

    Australia, however, accepts none, despite statistics showing it has, per capita, the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world.


    "We're basically being kicked out of our homes and its really sad that we can't stay here this is our land, our culture, our way of life," Rick says.


    Scientific opinion varies on how long Tuvalu has left given the current rises in sea levels but some say another 40 cm will be enough to kill off the island's vegetation.


    Laupepa says the climate problems are having an effect on people.


    "We have the least to do with these problems and yet we are being forced to think about [having to] move," he says. "That's very upsetting - it makes people angry you know."


    But if Tuvalu goes under the ocean itself will also pay a heavy price as decades worth of rubbish stored on the island will wash away into the pristine waters of the Pacific.


    Most islanders are afraid the IPCC report will be too little too late but they still hope the biggest polluters will have a change of heart.


    As Laupepa says: "We are all on the same boat you know. This planet belongs to all everyone on this earth and we have to play our role in keeping this ship afloat."

    Troubled waters

    Following the IPCC report on climate change, here are some facts about the world's seas.

    Coral reefs are under threat
    from rising sea levels [Reuters]

    1. Oceans cover 70 percent of the world's surface and more than 90 percent of the world's living biomass is found in the oceans.

    2. More than 3.5 billion people depend on the seas for their primary source of food. The numbers could double to 7.0 billion in 20 years.

    3. Over 70 percent of the world's marine fisheries are fished up to or beyond their sustainable limit. Stocks of fish such as tuna, cod, swordfish and marlin have declined by up to 90 percent in the past century.

    4. 80 percent of all pollution in the seas comes from land-based activities. By 2010, 80 percent of the world's population will live within 100 km of coastlines.

    5. An estimated 21 million barrels of oil run into the oceans every year from sources ranging from run-off from streets to ships flushing their tanks.

    6. Death and diseases caused by polluted coastal waters cost the global economy $12.8 billion every year.

    7. Sea levels have risen by 10-25 cm in the past 100 years and global warming is threatening further rises. Higher sea levels could destroy corals and swamp some low-lying nations in the Pacific.

    8. Tropical coral reefs are found off 109 nations significant damage has occurred to reefs off 93 of them, from factors including coastal development and tourism.

    9. Coral reefs comprise less than 0.5 percent of the ocean floor but more than 90 percent of marine species are directly or indirectly linked to them.

    10. The 2,000 km long Great Barrier Reef off Australia is the largest living structure on the planet, visible from the Moon.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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