Climate Change Refugees: A Catastrophe of Our Own Creation #Auspol

Anote Tong, former President of the Republic of Kiribati

Climate change poses the most significant moral challenge to the global community and an existential threat to the future of many communities worldwide. With the projected rise in sea levels by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of up to one metre within the century, the most vulnerable coastal communities and low-lying island states — several of which are in Pacific — face the real possibility of their islands and communities being submerged well within the next hundred years.

Recent events and the experience of the most vulnerable island communities clearly indicate that climate change is already seriously affecting the low-lying island communities in the Pacific. Cyclone Pam, which hit and seriously damaged the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu in March of 2014, also veered north on a path never previously witnessed to hit the islands of Tuvalu and the southern island of the Gilbert Island Group of Kiribati. Kiribati is on the Equator and was previously not prone to cyclone events, being in a region regarded as free from cyclones.
This unprecedented event clearly indicates that the weather patterns in this region are being altered and suggests that sea level rise may not be the most immediate threat to the security of these highly vulnerable island countries, but rather more highly energized and more frequent storms. Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji early in 2016, was categorized as the most severe storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere.

These cataclysmic events, together with ongoing and increasing severity of coastal erosion and periodic flooding, have now rendered what were once viable communities uninhabitable. Sea water has intruded into the underwater aquifers (a source of potable water and a lifeline for these communities), causing contamination to water supplies and damage to food crops.

Gilbert Islands, Kiribati (Credit: Charly W. Karl/Flickr)

Gilbert Islands, Kiribati (Credit: Charly W. Karl/Flickr)

On the southern island of the Gilbert Island Group, some villagers have now relocated to other parts of the island and several more will have to do the same well within the next decade. However, these atoll islands are on average no more than two meters above sea level. Therefore, the ability and the options for relocation on the islands are limited. Against this background and against the projected increasing severity of climate change impacts, the future of these communities and their capacity to continue as viable communities on their home islands is also severely limited.

Unless significant resources are to be made available from the developed world to build capacity to withstand the increasing severity of climate change impacts, a community’s ability to adapt and to remain in its homelands would not be an option.

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