Meet The First Pacific Island Town To Relocate Thanks To Climate Change
By Jeff Spross
A small town on Taro Island — the capital of Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands — is planning to relocate its entire population in response to climate change, Reuters reports. It’s the first time that a provincial capital in the Pacific Islands will have done so.
The islands that make up Choiseul Province and the rest of the Solomon Islands sit east of Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea, and northeast of Australia. Taro Island itself is only 6.6 feet above sea level, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects global sea level rise of one to three feet by the end of this century. But that’s likely a low ball estimate. Compounding factors like a speed-up in the melt of Greenland’s glaciers and the effectively irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic glacier could drive it considerably higher.
Rising seas will in turn bring ever-higher risks of storm surges, tsunamis, and floods to the community, which ranges from 500 to 1,000 people according to various reports. So in consultation with a team of engineers, scientists, and planners, Taro Island decided to build an entirely new town on a higher and larger nearby island, to which the population will be moved in stages. Money to purchase the land for the new project was provided by a $3 million grant from the Solomon Islands government in 2008.
Philip Haines, project manager for BMT WBM, an international consultancy that worked on the strategy, told Reuters that the new settlement will be able to handle 5,000 inhabitants when complete.
Essential infrastructure like a hospital and a secondary school will likely be built within the next five years. And eventually all services, facilities, government buildings, roads, and even a hydropower system will have to be constructed anew as well. The process is anticipated to take several decades to complete.
“Basically it’s a town from absolute scratch,” Haines told Reuters. “So we need to do it well and build it to last for many generations to come. … Relocation is the only option available that will keep the community safe and will allow for future growth and prosperity of the capital and the province.”
“The project followed the ways of our traditions,” added Jackson Kiloe, the premier of Choiseul Province, “talking with people, listening to people and reflecting the desires of the people. 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.”
That team was part of the $32 million Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning program, which is geared toward helping Pacific Island communities understand and respond to the impacts of climate change impacts, particularly where infrastructure planning and coastal zone management are concerned. But the final price tag for the relocation will likely run into many hundreds of millions of Australian dollars according to Haines, and the Solomon Islands government will looking for the money from international donors.
The last big disaster to hit the region was Cyclone Ita, which hit the Solomon Islands in April. The tropical storm brought widespread flash floods, and killed at least 23 people while affecting another 50,000. Back in 2007, a tsunami hit the Solomon Islands, disrupting the lives of almost one-fourth of the country’s 90,000 people, and killing 50.
“We have just witnessed how vulnerable Taro is to natural disasters,” Kiloe said at the time.
In the Carteret Atoll of Papua New Guinea, saltwater intrusion, damaged farming, and flooding and shore erosion from king tides are forcing about 2,000 people to resettle to the Bougainville mainland. And the Pacific island of Kiribati recently purchased 20 square kilometers of land on a nearby island in Fiji, so its people will have somewhere to grow food or even escape to should tides, flooding, and sea level rise force the need.
Planners for Taro Island have also drawn up stop-gap adaptation measures — such as a tsunami response plan — to help protect the community from climate change impacts as the relocation proceeds.