Friday, September 19, 2008

'Fish in the forest': Rising seas push PNG coast dwellers inland

'Fish in the forest': Rising seas push PNG coast dwellers inland

18 Sep 2008 10:24:00 GMT

Written by: World Vision

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Puwamo, Papua New Guinea : Climate change "refugees" who abandoned their coastal village of Labutali because of rising sea levels.
WORLD VISION/Johannes Luetz

Tristan Clements, a New Zealander, has worked for World Vision in humanitarian and emergency affairs in Chad, Niger and Sudan . Currently he manages World Vision's relief responses in the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea , Solomon Islands and Vanuatu .

Home is a powerful concept for the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Riven by steep-sided, impenetrable valleys and scattered island groups, 800 ethnic groups - and as many languages - have developed largely in isolation from one another, and their identity is pervasively rooted in their own parcel of territory.

Land ownership here continues to be one of the firmest cultural traits that unites the country. To lose your territory is to lose a significant part of your identity - and your freedom. To be displaced onto somebody else's puts you entirely at their mercy.

That is the bleak prospect facing the world's first sea level-rise "refugees". Although PNG's Carteret Islanders hold the dubious honour of being the first to permanently lose their land to sea levels, in fact they are just the most vocal of three or four atoll populations in PNG who are today's vanguard among the environmentally displaced.

When sea levels rise, loss of land will displace tens of thousands in PNG. The contamination of fresh-water lenses, poisoning of crops and flooding of low-lying settlements is a trend that will only continue, not just on outlying island chains but increasingly, on mainland coastal communities as well.

In Madang town itself, where I'm based, hundreds live on the small islands dotted around the harbour. Just a few feet above sea level, many are already complaining of the effects of rising waters.

After fleeing a volcanic eruption in 2004, a group of Manam islanders had little choice but to resettle here, building their huts on a sump of low-lying ground behind the beachhead. But salt water regularly intrudes into the water-table, killing their efforts to grow bananas and coconuts for food and sale.

The World Bank has offered a vast sum of money to develop an inland area for the Manams, 40 km from the coast in deserted swampland that nobody nearby wants to live in. The news scares the Manams, most of whom have had no say in the decisions, and know little of what is going on.

When they talk about it, there is an implication that many Manams feel they would die if they relocated away from the coast.

"Would you take a fish and put him in a forest?" one asks, with a smile that belies the gravity of his rhetoric.

With every inch seas rise, this story will be repeated up and down the PNG coastline. Global warming is no myth here. People are feeling its effects on their daily lives.

When I travel into small island communities in PNG or the Solomon Islands , villagers who may not have completed primary school say to me, "We hear the seas are rising, and we have seen it taking place here. Tell us what is happening."

It's not up to me to tell them, though; they have the hard evidence to inform our scientists. I've been a student of climate change for well over a decade, reading up at university on ice cores and coral records and the presence of different isotopes in the fossilized shells of prehistoric marine organisms in deep-sea beds.

It sounds dry, but when you look into it, you realise the science behind climate change isn't really up for that much debate. What's less clear is what exactly it will all mean, and what sorts of impacts will be felt over time.

For instance, just this week, national newspapers have reported on the finding that malaria, once confined to coastal zones, is now becoming a problem in highland areas. As temperatures rise, mosquitoes are able to survive at higher and higher altitudes and spread the disease.


In a nation like PNG, where the government owns virtually no public land on which to rehouse people, displacement from the sea presents an enormous problem.

Where on earth do we put them when they are eventually forced to flee? These will be almost universally coastal people, but as sea levels rise, coastal people on both islands and mainlands are going to find themselves on the move, their ecosystems and livelihoods growing ever more fragile as the waves encroach.

For those with backlands to retreat into, this may involve abandoning seafront huts and re-establishing themselves a few metres higher up and half a mile back from shore - as has already happened to at least one village in PNG's Morobe Province .

For others, the only solution may be inland relocation, replete with the need to adapt to new ecosystems, agricultural practices, diseases and neighbours - in short, the loss of an entire cultural lifestyle.

Accelerated urban migration is an inescapable conclusion, particularly for the youth who are already pulled to the crime-ridden and impoverished settlements of Lae and Port Moresby . The potential for conflict is huge as competition for resources around displaced populations spikes.

What steps is the government taking to prepare coastal communities for the inevitable changes to their lifestyle? How are they readying host communities for an influx of strange outsiders with all their resource needs, and so limit the potential for bloody conflict? What land reforms are taking place to ensure the government can access land to house populations forced from their homes?

These issues all need to be addressed, by the PNG government, by its international supporters and donors, even by NGOs in their long-term development plans.

Tragically, although discussions of Pacific vulnerability have been going for well over a decade, although science is now sounding sirens with ever more convincing urgency, although some community groups are waving their red flags from what are increasingly starting to look like sinking ships, the answer to the above questions is a polite but resounding "sweet very little".

"Would you take a fish and put him in the forest?" It sounds ridiculous. Who would do that?

But as we grow ever more convinced of the changes that are taking place in PNG's coastal communities, our question is going to have to be, "how will we take a fish and help him thrive in the forest?"

We have in front us a clear list of the challenges. It is now for communities, the government and civil society to come up with adaptive strategies to manage them ahead of time, because the Manams and Carteret islanders are soon going to become just a few small fish in what will be a very, very large shoal.

A new report commissioned by World Vision, Planet Prepare, explores the effects of climate change on the developing nations of Asia and the Pacific, and calls for clear and urgent action by the international community to protect coastal communities most at risk with education, disaster mitigation and preparation.

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