Pacific Island Villagers Become Climate Change Refugees

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, December 6, 2005 (ENS) - A village of 100 people in the Pacfic island nation of Vanuatu has become one of the first communities forced to move as a result of global warming.

After their coastal homes were repeatedly swamped by surges and large waves linked with climate change driven storms, in August the villagers of Lateu were relocated to higher ground in the interior of Tegua, one of Vanuatu's northern provinces.

The high coral reef, Lateu's previous line of defense against high tides and waves, had ceased to protect the village and the coastline was eroding between two and three meters (seven to 10 feet) a year.


Coastal Vanuatu is flooded during a cyclone in 2004. (Photo courtesy Emalus Campus Library)
Taito Nakalevu, climate change adaptation officer with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, which carried out the work with funding from the Canadian Government, said, “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 defenses not just to defend their homes, but to defend agricultural land,” he said.

Supplying drinking water to the new highland village, called Lirak, was a problem. In Lateu on the coast, villagers had fresh water springs at low tides. The problem was solved in the highlands with the installation of rainwater harvest tanks, together with roofing that feeds rainwater into the tanks.

“At least in the case of this community on Tegua we know that, for the next 50 years, the community of Lirak will be safe from floods, tsunamis and storm surges,” said Nakalevu, whose organization will be working with the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) on future adaptation projects.

Details of the relocation were released at a meeting today during the ongoing 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention. The meeting was organized by UNEP's polar centre, GRID-Arendal in Norway.

Called "Many Small Voices," the meeting is intended to build bridges between two groups vulnerable to global warming - Arctic communites and those of small island developing states. It is part of Arctic Day activities at the UN climate change conference.

UNEP’s Executive Director Klaus Toepfer 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 receeding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storms surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes underway which eventually will touch everyone on the planet," Toepfer said. "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."

The relocation, under a project entitled "Capacity Building for the Development of Adaptation in Pacific Island Countries," is an example of the increasingly drastic measures now underway to conserve low-lying communities threatened by the rise in emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as a result of human activities such as burning fossil fuels.

UNEP, in collaboration with others and with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is developing National Adaptation Programmes for Action in more than a dozen countries including Haiti, Liberia and Tanzania.


Tuvalu dancers (Photo courtesy Tuvalu Ministry of Trade and Tourism)
Vanuatu is not the only Pacific island nation at risk of severe storms and rising sea levels brought on by climate change. Tuvalu is a tiny constitutional monarchy made up of nine low-lying atolls, with a total land area of 26 square kilometers and an estimated population of 9,500.

In 2001, Tuvalu won New Zealand's agreement to accept an annual quota of its citizens as refugees after being rejected by the government of Australia. New Zealand has agreed to accept Tuvaluans at the rate of 75 families per year. The two governments expect the refugee arrangement to operate for the next 30 years or even longer, possibly until 2050.

Also vulnerable to climate change are mountain regions where melting glaciers are creating huge lakes whose mud, soil and stone banks could burst, sending floods down gulleys into valleys below. These unusual floods are known as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods.

At least 50 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan could be subject to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, according to studies conducted by UNEP in collaboration with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research.

The research is now being expanded into other Himalyan countries - Pakistan, India and China.

Glacial lake outburst flooding causes disasters to life and property downstream from the glacial lakes. The results include serious death tolls and destruction of valuable forests, farms and costly mountain infrastructure, UNEP says.

UNEP is seeking to secure further funding for this iniative through the GEF to identfy more newly formed glacial lakes at risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods and to develop operational early warning systems for such potentially life threatening events.