Sinking Islanders Seek Help at Bali Climate Conference

Charles J. Hanley in Kilu, Papua New Guinea
Associated Press
December 5, 2007
Squealing pigs tore inland, and Filomena Taroa herded the children to higher ground.

The sea was rolling in deeper than anyone had ever seen last week on Papua New Guinea's island of New Britain.

"I don't know [why it happened]," the sturdy, barefoot grandmother told a visitor. "I'd never experienced it before."

As scientists warn of rising seas due to global warming, more reports are coming in of flooding from record high tides in villages like Kilu.

It's happening not only to low-lying atolls but also to shorelines from Alaska to India.

This week by boat, bus, and jetliner a handful of villagers are converging on Bali, Indonesia, to seek help from representatives of the more than 180 countries gathered there for a United Nations climate conference.

"Climate Refugees"

The coastal dwellers' plight—once considered theoretical—appears all too real in 2007. The problem is spreading to new coasts, and the waters are flowing further inland.

Scientists project that seas expanding from warmth and from the runoff of melting glaciers may displace millions of coastal inhabitants worldwide in this century if heat-trapping industrial emissions are not sharply curtailed.

A Europe-based research group, the Global Governance Project, will propose at the two-week Bali meeting that an international fund be established to resettle "climate refugees."

(Read "Climate Change Creating Millions of 'Eco Refugees,' UN Warns" [November 18, 2005].)

Ursula Rakova is a resident of the Carteret Atoll northeast of the nearby island of Bougainville.

"We don't have vehicles, an airport," she said, summing up the islanders' plight. "We're merely victims of what is happening with the industrialized nations emitting greenhouse gases."

The sands of the atoll have been giving way to the sea for the past 20 years. The salt water has ruined their taro gardens, a food staple, and has contaminated their wells and flooded homesteads. The remote islands now suffer from chronic hunger.

The national government has appropriated $800,000 (U.S.) to resettle a few Carteret families on Bougainville out of 3,000 islanders.

"That's not enough," Rakova told the Associated Press in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. "The islands are getting smaller. Basically, everybody will have to leave."

"Sloshing" Ocean Rising

In a landmark series of reports released this year, the UN climate-science network reported that seas rose by a global average of about 0.12 inch (0.3 centimeter) annually from 1993 to 2003, compared to an average of about 0.08 inch (0.2 centimeter) annually between 1961 and 2003.

A 2006 study by Australian oceanographers found the rise was much higher—almost an inch (2.5 centimeters) every year—in parts of the western Pacific and Indian oceans.

"It turns out the ocean sloshes around," said the University of Tasmania's Nathaniel Bindoff, a lead author on oceans in the UN reports. "It's moving, and so on a regional basis the ocean's movement is causing sea-level variations—ups and downs."

Regional temperatures, atmospheric conditions, currents, and undersea and shoreline topography are all factors contributing to sea levels.

On some atolls, which are the above-water remnants of ancient volcanoes, the coral underpinnings are subsiding and adding to the sinking effect.

(Related photos: "Quake Lifts Island Ten Feet Out of Ocean" [April 10, 2007].)

The oceanic sloshing is steadily taking land from such western Pacific island countries as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands.

In Papua New Guinea, reports have trickled in this year of fast-encroaching tides on shorelines of the northern island province of Manus, the mainland peninsular village of Malasiga and the Duke of York Islands off New Britain.

International media attention paid to the Carteret Islands, the best-known case, seems to have drawn out others, said Papua New Guinea's senior climatologist, Kasis Inape.

"Most of the low-lying islands and atolls are in the same situation," Inape said.

No Escape

The village of Kilu sits on a brilliantly blue Bismarck Sea bay ringed by smoldering volcanoes, swaying coconut palms, and thin-walled homes on stilts.

Invading waves last year forced some villagers to move their houses inland 20 or more yards (18 or more meters)—taking along their pigs, chickens, and fears of worse to come.

Worse did come on November 25, when the highest waters yet sent people scurrying further inland.

"We think the sea is rising," said 20-year-old villager Joe Balele. "We don't know why."

The scene is repeated on shores across the Pacific, most tragically on tiny island territories with little inland to escape to.

Preparing to head to Bali to present her people's case Tuesday at the UN climate conference, Rakova searched for words to explain what was happening back home.

"Our people have been there 300 or 400 years," she said. "We'll be moving away from the islands we were born in and grew up in. We'll have to give up our identity."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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