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SIDS conference in Samoa to think about strategies for climate change

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Next week’s SIDS conference on climate change in Samoa is critically important for small island states. Image: SIDS 2014

As the first Pacific Island town faces relocation due to climate change, Pacific countries will meet at a United Nations conference in Samoa next week to try and develop strategies for the Western Pacific. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Marcus Bank

The future of the low-lying Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands republic is at serious risk because of climate change.

Rising sea levels could reach one metre within 100 years, and by 20 cm within the next 20 to 30 years, leading scientists told a World Science Week seminar in Auckland last week.

The 22 states of the UN Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) summit will meet in Apia, capital of Samoa, to discuss the sustainability of the Pacific Islands next week.

APJlogo72_iconImogen Ingram, Cook Islands indigenous and secretary-treasurer at the Island Sustainability Alliance, a non-government environmental organisation, says the three-day conference starting on Monday is vitally needed.

“SIDS is very important for the small islands. We have very little economic and political power, but if we stand together we can actually make a difference,” she says.

But for the conference to be successful a joint agreement is needed, Ingram adds.

“Official recommendations need to come out, and identify those countries that can help us in the larger forums.”

Different impacts
Climate change has had a large impact on the Pacific Islands over recent years.

Dr Steve Rintoul, professor and team leader at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, says the problem is the fact that the sea bottom is not level and sea level rise has different effects on certain oceans.

“Some areas of the sea will have bigger sea level changes than others, the western Pacific being one of them,” he says.

And along with king tides and storms happening more often it is going to have a great effect on earth, Dr Rintoul says.

Dr John Campbell, Pacific environmental expert and associate professor at Waikato University, says the countries of Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu are in the greatest danger because of rising sea levels.

“These countries are made of atolls. They are very low lying,” he says.

According to the latest climate change report on the Western Pacific, published by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO this year, small island countries are “highly vulnerable” and “people living in the Pacific Islands (…) are already experiencing higher temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels and changes in frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events.”

Long-term changes
“These longer-term changes are now affecting the sustainability of important infrastructure, industries and environmental assets in the western tropical Pacific region,” it stated.

And some of the countries are already experiencing the effects of the changing climate.

Caption

The SIDS summit in Samoa … the media mostly focus on the rise of the sea levels, but the lack of water is going to be just as big a problem. Image: SIDS 2014

“The groundwater is being salinised by seawater and we are seeing coastal erosions in some islands,” Dr Campbell says.

Even though these events are already happening, Dr Campbell is hesitant to give climate change the full blame.

“We call it that it is consistent to climate change, but we are missing the smoking gun,” he said.

While media mostly focus on the rise of the sea levels, the lack of water is going to be just as big a problem, Dr Campbell says.

“We tend to focus on sea-level rise, but drought is also a problem.”

Fragile atolls
Dr Campbell says while most countries get their rainfall from the mountains on the islands, atolls are more fragile because they have no mountains.

“If you have periods of no rainfall because you have no clouds, then the groundwater won’t get replenished.”

He says the most acute problem would be lack of freshwater.

“Freshwater will be quite a pressure point.”

Ingram also says there has been a lack of focus on the problem with freshwater supply.

“The winds will shift and that means that the Cook Islands is getting rain at very odd times,” she says.

“Some island states, such as Samoa, have had long times last year without rain, which means there is need for more water storage. This is very serious.”

Migration future issue
Another part of the problem with climate change is possible migration from the islands, because some will be no more.

The countries at the SIDS forum will address this rising problem as well.

Dr Richard Bedford, professor of population geography at the University of Waikato and pro vice-chancellor at AUT University, says the changing climates have made low lying countries like Kiribati prepare for worsening times.

“The president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has set up a long-term strategy to prepare the population eventually living in different types of environments and doing different types of jobs,” he said.

“But it’s not about training the people to leave, but training them to meet qualifications for countries they someday might want to move to.”

By educating the population, they get the qualifications they need to eventually work and live in countries like New Zealand.

Dr Bedford says that this plan is a long-term plan, and is not something that is happening overnight.

It is not possible to seek refuge in New Zealand today due to climate change.

‘Climate refugees’
“New Zealand has been very firm, that the term ‘climate change refugee’ is not an acceptable term in terms of seeking refuge,” he says.

During recent months two cases of people seeking refuge have been brought to court in New Zealand.

One was denied residency, the other granted – but due to family relations in New Zealand and not just climate change.

But the doors are not closed in New Zealand, Dr Bedford says.

“New Zealand law allows acceptance on humanitarian grounds, and does allow climate change to be a factor, but not the only factor.”

But as the atolls begin to disappear and more people start to seek refuge, Dr Bedford believes that the law will change.

“New Zealand policy on immigration will adjust to changing circumstances in the Pacific.”

Marcus Bank is an Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme student journalist from Denmark on exchange at AUT University. He is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.

SIDS Live.com – conference updates