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Choiseul – first climate change town to move in bid to beat tsunamis

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A welcome move … some of the Choiseul Bay community check out the relocation plans. Image: Dr Simon Albert/UQ

Fear of tsunamis and the threat of rising sea levels has made a provincial capital in the Solomon Islands decide to relocate its entire population – the first time this has happened on this scale in the Pacific. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on the challenges of relocating.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Elesha Edmonds

Residents of a provincial capital in the Solomon Islands have to always keep their eyes on the tide as they live in fear of being flooded by the ocean.

Choiseul, a township on Taro Island, which is the provincial capital of Choiseul Province, is home to about 1000 people and sits less than two metres above sea level, making the island vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis.

It has reached the point that authorities have decided relocation is the only long-term solution to combat the existing and future risks of climate change.

APJlogo72_iconPlans are underway to build a new town on the nearby mainland and then gradually move residents – the first time a relocation of a provincial capital, with all its services and facilities, has happened in the Pacific Islands.

The decision comes after the release of the Choiseul adaption plan this month, which was conducted to scope out ways the island could adapt to issues of climate change.

The project, funded by the Australian government, involved a team of engineers, scientists and planners who consulted with the Choiseul Bay community to develop the plan.

In a statement, the Premier of Choiseul Province, Jackson Kiloe, welcomed the strategy saying, “the project team has identified practical steps that are within our means to adapt to natural hazard risks, especially tsunami, which is of great concern to our people”.

Accelerated plans
Dr Philip Haines, project manager for BMT WBM, the international consultancy that worked on the project, says the community had been considering relocation due to population constraints, but the long term risk of rising sea levels has pressured them to accelerate their plans.

“There is little bit of high land that is probably just okay for now, but in the future with sea level rise that land also would be under significant threat,” he says.

“The recommendation is that in the longer term relocation is the only safe option for the community.”

Project manager Philip Haines

Project manager Dr Philip Haines hands over the final report to Choiseul Province Premier Jackson Kiloe at the handover ceremony in Taro last month. Image: Dr Simon Albert/UQ

Dr Simon Albert, from School of Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland, consulted with the Choiseul community as part of the project.

He says residents are particularly fearful of a repeat of the April 2007 tsunami that swept through the Solomon Islands, killing more than 50 people and destroying hundreds of homes.

“Those experiences are quite raw and fresh in people’s minds and they’re on a small island in the middle of the ocean with not too many alternatives,” he says.

“The women describe waking up in the middle of the night, when there is an earthquake, fearing for their family and trying to grab their kids and put them in a little boat to get them across to the mainland.”

Setting a precedent
The fear of climate change has prompted other Pacific Islands to relocate, although on a smaller scale.

Kiribati recently brought land on the northern Fiji island of Rotuma, while in Papua New Guinea the population of low-lying Carteret Atoll was evacuated to mainland Bougainville.

However the relocation of Choiseul is the biggest project of its kind so far and has been said to be setting a precedent for other provinces in the Solomons and across the Pacific.

“From within the Solomons they see themselves as global leaders in some respects using this a case study for other people to learn from,” says Dr Albert.

However Jeremy Dorovolomo, a resident on Taro’s neighbouring Sipozare Island, says although he is aware of the threat of climate change, he doesn’t think it is enough to make him follow the actions of Choiseul.

“Sipozare could be inundated by water in the coming years maybe,” he says. “But I’m not necessarily thinking of relocating.”

Dorovolomo says the Sipozare island community has instead implemented their own risk management strategies; include building homes on the mainland to escape to.

Natural disasters
“I don’t really have any control over natural disasters but we simply strategise in terms of where we could go when something happens.”

Dr J C Gaillard, from Auckland University, has researched into post-disaster resettlement and says relocation is more complicated than just deciding to move, as it involves people’s livelihoods and lives at large.

“Trying to relocate people away from the sea for example because it’s meant to be dangerous is complicated since, at the same time, the sea provides resources to sustain their daily needs,” he says.

“I mean if people are safe from a tsunami on a hundred year basis but can’t survive on a daily basis then it doesn’t make any sense.”

Gaillard says relocation is much more than simply providing a house as it is a comprehensive economic and cultural change for the community.

“There’s a tendency worldwide for planners, who get super excited about planning a new city out of the blue for example, to implement blueprint ideas from textbook which seldom match people’s culture and needs.”

Cultural ties
Dorovolomo says Choiseul is a newly established settlement which means the population could be less culturally attached to their land, making it easier to leave.

“The ones with ancestral links to the land, those are the ones that might have issues relocating.”

Haines also noted this saying he was surprised at the response of the community when the move was suggested.

“Normally you would find there are really strong links with land, with the sort of indigenous communities.

“They saw the bigger picture, they saw that it was a dangerous place to live and they were keen to try and move somewhere that they could raise their families living in safety.”

Choiseul’s reallocation process has begun with the purchase of land to build the settlement. However both authorities and those involved in the project recognise the timeframe and costs surrounding the plans implementation.

The federal government will be allocating funding to the relocation project but will need to find further funding from international donors.

While it will take decades to complete, Dr Haines says the Choiseul community is optimistic about the relocation.

“It has a great community spirit to it and I think that spirit will be maintained when they move to the new location.”

Elesha Edmonds is an Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme student journalist at AUT University. She is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.

Authorities of Choiseul, a provincial capital of the Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands, have decided to build a new town on the nearby mainland and gradually move its residents. Photo Credit: Dr Simon Albert, UQ

Part of Choiseul, a provincial capital of Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands. The residents will be on the move to a new town. Image: Dr Simon Albert/UQ