Tag Archives: Pacific Islands

A turning point towards a decarbonized world

„It’s time to come to an agreement!“ Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 conference announced. We have waited long to address climate change. After two weeks of hard work and 21 years of discussions, an ambitious agreement on climate change is approved. The document is a turning point for the faith of the world.

Pacific voices did not get drowned

COP21 was a moment of truth were islands facing up oil states for a just deal. Diplomats decided with foggy minds in night-long discussion about our future. The atmosphere was varying between hope, frustration and practical optimism. Threatened by rising sea levels, islands stood powerful and united and pushed the conference ahead. Tiny islands drove this change as they were seeking for a guarantee of their survival. But nevertheless the 1.5 °C target is a surprise win. Nations like Saudi-Arabia were long time blocking arguments for an ambitious agreement, as their economies were at stake. Tony de Brum, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Marshall Islands, emerged as moral leader of the conference and formed a coalition of high ambitious states. Finally Pacific voices did not get drowned. A turning point for the world.

 We are fighting, we are not drowning!

This conference is also a success for the climate justice movement. There was and still is a huge pressure from civil society at the conference venue of COP 21 – but also all over the world ahead and during the Paris conference. Hundreds of thousands took to the street demanding for climate action. Amazing pictures of colourful crowds were shared all over the world. Young people acted as agents of change as they are left with a climate mess. Many artists work to turn the tide with poems, stories and art. Also religious groups made a unprecedended push for climate action. The movement gained an important momentum with the encyclica „Laudato Si“ of the pope.  All of them stand in solidarity with the Pacific and other vulnerable regions of the world. The mobilization around COP21 lead to a form of inner resilience: It connected hearts and minds of many people worldwide. As Fenton Lutunatabua activist of the organisation 350.org summarized it: „I can see humans in humanity again.“

 Fair burden share and climate migration – the new big issues

But people will continue losing homeland to encroaching seas. After each destruction themselves: „Build it up or let it drown?“ Most households in the Pacific are mulling about migration. Young and old are divided over this topic. Younger people consider to move. Law traps Pacific islander yet on their islands as climate migration was in a legal limbo. Climate migrants are now recognized for the first time in the Paris agreement. The debate about climate migration gave the COP21 a human rights dimension.

Who will pay for the dire consequences of a hostile climate? Island nations asked for financial commitments from those who caused climate change. They wanted a compensation for the loss and damage that occurs in their country due to climate change and an easier access to climate finance. Not all demands were heard but the topic is on the floor now.

There is no time to lose

Climate change does not stop with an agreement.  After the conference the fight for climate justice continues. Not climate rhetoric counts but only climate action. The Paris agreement will lead to a massive boost of the renewable industry. States agreed on voluntary national contributions – the so-called INDCs. There were good and bad surprises. But the unexpected move to 1.5°C is politics. But is holding warming at 1.5°C realistic? The echoes of the scientific community are diverging. Though climate pledges are ambitious the targets of the agreements are too low lax to achieve a world well below 2°C warming. There is still the risk that we are crossing the thresholds of climate tipping points which leads to catastrophic warming.

The sea level is predicted to rise by up to a meter by the end of this century. On Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Kiribati nearly 100 % of the population live below 5 metres above sea Level. Especially for the climate predictions for the Pacific region have data gaps with enormous uncertainties. Uncertain about the future, islands have to be prepared. Entire forests are planted to save island homes from erosion. Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes not. Some climate change impacts appear even sooner than sea level rise. As water and soil gets salted, islands will starve before they are flooded. Especially indigenous People carry this burden. Many important initiatives were launched in Paris to tackled climate change adaptation. Faced with loss of their islands, 5 nations launched the „The Pacific Rising“ plan – a Marshall plan for the islands. Let’s hope that castle-like seawalls and worse can be avoided.

A refrain of a song in Kiribati says „The angry sea will kill us all“. The conference was not about survival of islands only, but about saving humanity. Islands are ground zero of climate change, but no nation is immune to its implications. As an indigenous leader spokes out on the conference: „If we vanish, we vanish together.“ Therefore let’s head for a decarbonized world!

© 2015 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved. 

Carteret Island NASA

Carteret Islands – The challenge of relocating entire islands

The Carteret Islands got uninhabitable due to sea level rise. A local grassroots movement organises the relocation of the entire island group. Land and financial resources must be acquired and good relations are prepared with host communities. Despite of a large media coverage about the faith of Carteret Islanders, little external help was received to assist relocation plans.

Why Carteret Islands need to be relocated

The Carteret Islands is a group of small low-lying atolls 86 km northeast of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. They are only about 1 m above sea level. Laying in a tectonically unstable region Carteret is subsiding steadily. Storms caused erosion of land and saltwater intrusion in the soil so that the islanders were unable to feed themselves. Boats with food came two or three times a year. But on long term, it was not bearable that people could survive only by external aid.

Government’s incapacity to organize appropriate relocations

In the 1980s, the government of Papua New Guinea decided, that the 300 families of the Carteret Islands and three nearby islands need to be resettled to the neighbouring Bougainville. By 1984, 10 families were resettled. But the conditions for these families were very unfamiliar. People who used to live from fishing found themselves in land-locked locations in the middle of the bush far from the sea. They felt adrift because traditional marine skills were little help in subsistence gardening of unfamiliar crops. Children had to walk 6 km to school which are incredible long distances for people how used to live on small atolls. After this cultural shock, two families decided to go back to their home atolls (Campbell, 2012).

Tulele Peisa – ‘Sailing the waves on our own

In 1989, the civil war on Bougainville break out, so that all resettlement initiatives came to halt. People were not willing to move to a place in civil chaos. National government funds returned unspent to the central government. Erosion on the islands got worse, so that islanders could not wait any more to plan the resettlement. After a period of frustrating inaction the Carteret Council of Elders founded in 2006, the local NGO ‘Tulele Peisa’. The name ‘Tulele Peisa’ means ‘Sailing the waves on our own’ and reflects the desire to find an independent self-determined solution for resettlement plans (Rakova, 2009). The grassroots’ organisation filled the gap of institutions which were incapable to take actions.

Resources for relocations

A social mapping of the communities begun to collect data about the needs of all families. Four facilitators were engaged to provide training for sustainable livelihood. Workshops about climate change were hold to raise the awareness of islanders. A task force committee developed a 14 step plan for resettlement of 50 % of the island’s population by 2020. (Ferris, 2011) To avoid resettling in a precarious situation, it was defined that each family required 5 ha land: 1 ha for housing and personal gardens, 3 ha for livelihood for farming cash crops, 1 ha for reforestation (Displacement Solutions, 2008).

It was calculated that a sum of US$ 5.3 million is required for the period 2009 to 2019 to ensure the basic needs for a successful resettlement. Since the islanders do not have this money they depend on the government and international aid for the project. $ 800,000 was provided by the Papua New Guinea government. For further funding the organisation needs donations from private donors or international organisations.

The challenge is to find land, housing and livelihood for the uprooted people which allow them to continue their lifestyle of subsistence agriculture. Obtaining clear titles for land is very difficult because of competing claims of traditional owners, the government, the formal title holder and the land user. 96% of the land on Bougainville is subject to claims by customary landowners. There is no political will to buy land or expropriate land owners. Only 80 ha has been provided by the Roman Catholic Church which allowed some families to settle to this place.

Avoiding ethnical conflicts with host population

Tulele Peisa is conscious that the host communities must be integrated in the resettlement plan. The NGO tries to establish good relations with the existing communities by exchange programs of chiefs, women and children from Carteret and the host communities (Tulele Peisa, 2008). Ceremonial acts like the exchange of traditional shell money were carried out. Marriages between Carteret Islanders and Bougainvilians are promoted. But Tulele Peisa aims also to maintain the cultural bonds to the islands of origin. Relocated islander remain clan members. Regular sea transport services for passengers and freight should guarantee the connection to remaining islands. (Rakova, 2009)

Much media attention – Little help

Many filmmakers and radio stations told the world the Carteret story. The documentary “Sun Come Up” about the Carteret Island was Oscar nominated in 2011. The Carteret islanders toured through Australia and participated at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December 2007. The Carteret Islands got the icons for climate change refugees. But media attention did not yet turn into practical assistance to relocation plans (Tulele Peisa, 2008). Since 2010 the Carteret Islanders decided not to accept any more visits by journalists, tourists or researchers on their atoll.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Understanding Climate Change and El Niño

Pacific weather conditions  are dominated by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). But what is this climate phenomena exactly and does it get altered with climate change?

What is El Niño?

The ENSO cycle is a natural climate variability in the Pacific region with cycles of about two to six years. During natural ENSO oscillations the sea level fluctuates of about 20 cm and causes large seasonal variations of precipitation patterns with long wet and dry periods between several years. In El Niño periods the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. More cyclones are occurring. In La Niña periods the Central and Eastern Pacific Ocean is colder than average. ENSO La Niña periods promote rather drought conditions in the South Pacific.

El Niño – Easy explained

You are not a scientist and need a simple explanation to grasp it? No problem. Watch this funny video of the climate crab and you understand the impacts of El Niño on the Pacific Island region:


Water scarcity in La Niña periods

In La Niña periods many islands experience situations of water shortage. Islands are not any more able to meet the citizens’ needs for drinking water. Water scarcity is a vital problem for many Pacific Island states. It is defined as lack of sufficient access to safe and affordable water for drinking, washing and livelihood. Since Pacific islands are poorly gifted with surface water and groundwater is too brackish to drink, many countries dependent on rainwater as primary water source. This makes the islands very vulnerable to variations of precipitation patterns.

How climate change affects ENSO

Climate change model projections show that ENSO events are becoming more intense and extreme with longer periods of drought and more frequent tropical cyclones. But model projections about rainfall pattern are inconsistent. Some preview an increase in rainfall, others predict reduced amounts of rainfall (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011, Power 2012). Though measurements do not show a significant trend for extreme weather events, the IPCC stated that it is very likely that small islands to the east of the dateline experience more frequent and intense and devasting tropical storms during El Niño events (Mimura, 2007).

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.

Climate change: Remote islands are struggling

Pacific Islands are characterized by their remoteness. This has massive influence on the economic development of islands and their capacity to adapt to climate change. Only a few shipping lines connect the dispersed islands with the world and bring merchandises, resources and experts to the islands. Imports and exports and the repairing of damages after disasters are thus extremely expensive.

Video message from the SIDS Conference 2014

In September 2014, a Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) was hold in Samoa. An impressive video showed how remote Pacific Islands are especially struggling to cope with climate Change:

The role of Fiji

Fiji has a central role for the developement of the region. The airport on Fiji has regular international flights and serves as hub to distribute goods in the region. Most regional organizations and many embassies are centralized in Fiji’s capital Suva. The University of South Pacific in Suva is the intellectual center of Oceania. It is financed by 12 insular states. Many countries are also dependant on the higher level of health services of Fiji.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.



Water shortage in paradise

Surrounded by sparkling blue sea, many Pacific Islands facing the risk that freshwater scarcity could turn their islands uninhabitable. Tuvalu declared in 2011 the state of emergency due to water scarcity. During six month it did not rain on the remote atolls. Approximately 1,500 people of the 11,000 inhabitants run out of fresh water (BBC, 2011; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).

Why is there water scarcity on Pacific Islands?

One reason for the water crisis is climate change. Nations like Tuvalu are tiny atoll islands with thin freshwater lenses and no rivers or lakes. The warming trend lead to higher evaporation rates, so that more precipitation is required to replenish the freshwater lens. By sea level rise, more seawater pushes against the freshwater lens of atolls, so that groundwater gets too salty to drink.

Since groundwater is not potable, rainfall collected by roof catchments is often the primary source of freshwater. This makes people very vulnerable to droughts. The region is characterized by dry and wet seasons and strong variation of precipitation patterns due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Every two to six years La Niña periods with drought conditions occur. With climate change, ENSO events become more intense with longer periods of drought. But during the drought crisis of Tuvalu in 2011, precipitation pattern lay in the range of normal variations (Pacific Climate Change Science Program 2011). Why was Tuvalu not any more able to meet the citizen’s needs for water?

 Other driving forces for water stress

The driving force for water scarcity is not only the lack of resources, it is also a question of an increased water demand. In the last years the domestic use of water grew with new lifestyles, cars, washing machines, and imported food. Households got equipped with flush toilets which increased the water demand increased by 25-40 % (GEF Pacific IMRW, 2012).

Problems were exacerbated by a high population density. With 333.3 people per km2 Tuvalu has today one of the highest population density in the world (FAO, 2012). The rapid population growth lead to a fast urbanization with quickly constructed insufficient water infrastructure. Rain tanks are often leaking. The growing number of family members compromises the water security in drought periods, because water tanks were constructed to cater a smaller number of family members. Many people have no paid work, so that they cannot afford to buy new water tanks. For households without income, even low fees for water from public cistern can be too much.

Poor families use the salty groundwater as emergency water source in periods of drought. But today, groundwater is often contaminated by heavy metals from waste dumps and by facial bacteria from leaking septic tanks. Health authorities on Tuvalu strongly recommend not to drink well water. But in drought periods poor people and islanders far from public cisterns have no choice. Therefore, waterborne and water-related diseases like diarrhoea and cholera, are likely to occur.

How to cope with the problem of water scarcity?

Disaster risk reduction measures are cheaper than emergency relief. The increase of water storage capacities and sustainable use of local water resources has a high priority for Pacific island nations. Water catchments get improved, communities get equipped with desalination units and dry composting toilets are installed. Educational videos like “Falevatia: A toilet for our future.” highlights the benefits of this low tech solutions:


Public awareness campaigns seek to improve knowledge about water resource management. Since national TV channels do not exist, the radio is the best way to reach people on remote islands. Weather forecasts get improved because in situations of drought they give time for emergency adaption.

Water scarcity could also compromise the food security of islands. Pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) is the main staple of the traditional diet of Pacific islanders. It has a low capacity to tolerate saltwater. Crops die due to saline water contamination, so that the cultivation of salt resistant crops is now promoted.

Outlook to the future: Is it too late for domestic adaption?

Regional governments are aware of the limits of adaption. A growing population compete over the allocation of water resources. It is not sure, if islands can cope to with less stable precipitation patterns in the future. The IPCC stated in the Forth Assessment Report that it is very likely that low-lying island states are getting entirely uninhabitable long before their full submersion due to the lack of water (Mimura et al., 2007). Some settlements had to be already relocated due to the lack of water.

© 2014 Heike Huntebrinker. All rights reserved.