The Last Islanders: rising sea levels in Papua New Guinea
“We can see it with our own eyes, I’m afraid,” said Maria, 13. “The sea is eating the ground.” Maria lives on a remote atoll known as the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea and for over twenty years the islanders have been fighting a battle against the rising sea levels.
The islanders have been building seawalls and planting mangroves to hold back the rising tides but, they say, it is a losing battle against the inevitable. Most believe one day everyone will have to leave.
“The children will have to move later, for sure,” said school teacher Jarreanne Prabon. “I can see the food becoming scarcer, the clean water harder to come by. There’s not enough land to sustain us because the land is disappearing under the ocean.”
The islanders are in little doubt that the reason for this is climate change. “With climate change, life on the island will become impossible,” said Jarreanna. “But it’s hard to let go of your home… a place we have been for generations.”
In many parts of the world climate change threatens to destroy, contaminate or dry up water supplies. In areas where sea levels rise, children’s lives are at risk as the quantity and quality of their water they drink is under threat, as are food crops. When sea-levels rise salt water can infiltrate water supplies and cause irreversible damage, making the water undrinkable.
“Because of the sea level rise the water is going into the village, into our gardens and homes. We can’t grow food easily anymore because the salt water kills the soil,” said Jarreanne.
Around 80 kilometres away on Bougainville Island, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea, the first people to leave the Carteret Islands are finding land, building homes and new livelihoods for the Carteret Islanders. These people have been named the world’s first environmental refugees.
“Eventually the sea will cover the island. Some people will stay until it’s completely eaten up by the sea,” says Maurice Kamin who left the Carteret Islands eight years ago with his family. “We do worry about something really bad happening to the island before everyone moves.”
In 2006 island elders set up Tulele Peisa, meaning ‘sailing the waves on our own’ in the local Halia language, to look at ways to facilitate the relocation and resettlement of the islanders. Under the leadership of Ursula Rakova, Tulele Peisa is helping to secure land, teach new livelihoods and conduct research.
“We are talking about the future of the children here — they need education, they need food, they need water,” said Ursula, standing in one of the first settlements in Wurowaf, Bougainville. “This is over 10 years of hard work and struggle, but we are all committed. For me it’s really about justice; about ensuring a safe future for all the children and their families.”
In Papua New Guinea, many households and schools use rain water tanks. After droughts these tanks can quickly run dry which leads to schools closing early because they unable to provide pupils with enough water each day.
To help remedy this situation, UNICEF is working with the Government to finalize standards and guidelines on water, sanitation and hygiene in schools which focuses on water quality and availability at all times irrespective of climate impacts. UNICEF is also working with the Government to help design and install sustainable water supply systems which can withstand the effect of climate change
Back on the Carteret Islands, some girls were sheltering from the heavy tropical rains in their leaky classroom. While water trickled through the thatched roof onto the old wooden benches, they gave an insight into their everyday lives.
“Sometimes we go into the bush to see if we can find a coconut to eat and drink for breakfast,” said Rose, 13. “We only have breakfast sometimes, like a grapefruit or coconut. We have to be careful with our water too.”
“Because of food shortages we stop classes at midday — they can’t concentrate for more than a few hours,” said teacher Jarreanne. “I know we’re not covering all the curriculum, but the children have to go home. Most of the time they complain in class about being hungry.”
Despite the challenges, the girls were still eager to learn. “I wish we had some more materials in class,” said Rose. “Maybe some posters, and better desks so we have some more space.”
The beautiful island is still home to many and they are proud of their heritage and history of living on this tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean. But many of the islanders, including the children, feel we might be seeing among the last generations to be brought up here.
“One day I will leave this island,” said Rose. “I’ll be happy to leave but I will miss it. It’ll always be my home even when the sea takes it away.”