Getting off a drowning island isn’t easy

Sea level rise caused by climate change is impacting island populations around the world, and especially in the Pacific. The obvious answer is re-location, but for many that is easier said than done.

Villagers on the Carteret Islands receive a supply boat.
Photo: Supplied / Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand

For more than 13 years, Ursula Rakova has been battling to relocate her people from the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, which are slowly being swamped by the sea.

They don’t want to give up the way of life of generations before them, but they have no choice.

More than 3000 people are stuck on the shrinking, low-lying islands, waiting for the government to fund their resettlement on the mainland of Bougainville.

Rakova owns the tiny atoll of Huene in the six-island Carteret group, where land ownership is traditionally passed down through the women of the clan.

Her organization Tulele Peisa has helped about 30 families move to land gifted to them by the Catholic church on mainland Bougainville 90 kilometers away, but 350 more families – about 70 percent of the population – need government help to move.

“We can’t allow them to move and squat. We want them to move so that they can continue to sustain themselves by growing their own food crops, also growing some cash crops,” Rakova says.

The Carteret Islanders depend on government rations because they can no longer grow their own food as seawater erodes the land and encroaches on their crops.

Speaking to The Detail from Bougainville where she now lives, Rakova says she worries that the government’s food rationing “continues to breed a generation of people who continue to rely on supplies from the government”.

Climate change activist Ursula Rakova.

Climate change activist and Carteret Islander Ursula Rakova.
Photo: Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand

She wants that money to be spent instead on buying land and relocating the families. About 30 percent of the population would remain on the islands, supported by a program helping them to adapt to the changes.

But her people are competing against communities from other low lying atolls for government relocation funds.

“But let’s face it: Carteret Islanders have wanted to move for the last 10, 12 years. It’s serious for us, we need to move,” says Rakova.

Rakova’s story is not unique, but the true extent of the impact of climate change and how many people face dislocation in the Pacific are not known.

“Relocation is always the last resort option,” says Martin de Jong, advocacy advisor for the Catholic charity Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand. De Jong says even relocations of communities a few hundred meters away are fraught.

In other low-lying Pacific countries on the frontline of sea level rise such as Kiribati, people are fighting to stay. But when it comes to Carteret Islands, moving is the only option, he says. So far, Caritas and other groups have been unsuccessful in their lobbying to speed up the process.

Relocations are often supported by church groups, governments and embassies. Caritas, for example helps with small scale development projects such as a cocoa drier for the Carteret people to process cocoa beans as a cash crop.

De Jong says even those working closely with the Pacific communities do not know the extent of the impact of climate change and sea level rise.

“It is one of the frustrating things of working in the last seven or eight years on the [annual] State of the Environment for Oceania report. We hear a lot of stories of people having to move at various levels but there seems to be very little if any comprehensive assessment of how many people are moving and how many are at risk. “

He says the Pacific is very often neglected when it comes to reports on issues such as climate change.

De Jong says groups like his will be pushing hard in the lead up to the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 27 in Egypt in November for “stronger, real action on addressing loss and damage with a proper financial facility and more money committed to it “.

A woman in a red dress holds a younger girl in a hug.  They smile at each other.

Ursula Rakova and her granddaughter.
Photo: Supplied / Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand

The Detail also talks to Caritas Fiji director, Sirino Rakabi who has has just visited three villages on the island of Vanua Levu that have been torn apart by sea level rise but in different ways. He says the experiences of those populations highlight the need to include local people in decisions.

“Before any decision is made for people to relocate or bring other people from outside, proper consultation needs to be carried out with the consent of the people, especially people who have been living on those lands for years and then they have to be relocated due to some government arrangements. “

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