1,000 flee as sea begins to swallow up Pacific islands
The Independent (U.K.),Nov. 29, 2000
As the world's wealthiest nations bickered about carbon dioxide credits in The Hague last weekend, the inhabitants of a remote group of coral atolls on the other side of the planet were watching the Pacific Ocean advance inexorably towards their homes.
Yesterday, 1,000 residents of the Duke of York islands in Papua New Guinea were told they are to be evacuated to higher ground, in what could be a dress rehearsal for millions of people around the globe affected by rising sea levels.
The islands, together with neighbouring atolls such as Takuu, home to a small community of "singing" Polynesians, are likely to be the first to be engulfed by the effects of global warming.
Up to 40,000 people from the Duke of York group, which lies between the large Papua New Guinean islands of New Britain and New Ireland, will eventually need to be resettled.
The islands are just 12ft above sea level, and they are sinking 11.8ins a year. In the initial phase of relocation, families from five villages most at risk from the ocean are to be moved to a plantation on New Britain.
Some have already lost their homes, and are living in tents. The East New Britain provincial government has supplied mosquito nets and emergency food supplies.
The Governor of New Britain, Ephraim Jubilee, told the Post-Courier newspaper that the provincial government was aware of their dire situation. "We have already made a decision to acquire land for their resettlement," he said. "The Duke of York islanders are a priority at this stage because of the immediate danger that faces the islands."
On Takuu, 400 people with a unique culture are in a similar plight. The inhabitants of the low-lying atoll, who have a memorised repertoire of 1,000 songs, have seen their gardens flooded and their sand dunes swept away. It could be a few months, at most five years, before the waves swallow their houses.
For the Duke of York islands and for Takuu, the threat represented by the rising seas is compounded by a violent clash of underwater tectonic plates that triggers periodic earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions. Two earth tremors earlier this month set off a small tsunami in the harbour of Rabaul, the main town on New Britain.
The Duke of York group played a colourful role in Pacific colonial history. A celebrated Samoan-American, "Queen" Emma Coe, set up her first trading station on the islands, and the first Methodist mission in New Guinea was founded there. In 1903 a German health fanatic established a nudist colony with 30 followers. For the Takuu islanders, resettlement will spell the extinction of their culture, says Richard Moyle, of Auckland University. Mr Moyle, who visited Takuu last January, said an attempt to protect the island by building coral walls had backfired.
While he was there, north-west trade winds and unusually high tides swept away the sea walls. "Everyone went out and tried to repair them, but that same afternoon the high tide came in again and the people just watched them go," he said.
"There was nothing else they could do. They hauled up all the canoes, for the first time, on to the flat top of the island and stared out to sea. It was something they didn't know how to cope with."
The islanders depend on a supply of home-grown taro, a root vegetable, but cultivation is jeopardised because their gardens are contaminated with salt water. Their fresh water is brackish and foul-tasting, and causes a rash when they wash with it. At The Hague, the climate talks collapsed because of a demand by the United States to set off millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide absorbed by its forests against targets agreed at Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The talks will resume next year but, in this part of the Pacific, it is too late for theorising. Reflecting on the fate of the Takuu islanders, Mr Moyle said: "If you want to say doomed, I guess that in a literal sense, they are."