Sinking sands in the Western Solomons reinforces evidence of rising sea levels and land loss

Sinking sands in the Western Solomons reinforces evidence of rising sea levels and land loss

Posted by : Frank Short Posted on : 23-Nov-2021
Sinking sands in the Western Solomons reinforces evidence of rising sea levels and land loss

Writing a moving and sad story in today’s Island Sun newspaper today Ben Bilua captures the impact of climate change affecting people and parts of the Western Region of the Solomon Islands,

Here is his story, quoted.

As dawn broke in the Western Solomons, frigate birds were searching for their resting place only to find a few coral stones. The stones are what is left of a sinking island. These stones sit above sea level during low tides and disappear underwater during high tides.

The birds fought for the stones to rest. After minutes of fighting, a few birds flew away while a few sat on the stones in despair wondering what had happened to their resting place. The birds are not alone; people have also shared the grief as their childhood memories and heritage were taken away.

This story revealed how sea-level rise took away fond memories of sinking islands in the Western Province of Solomon Islands in a span of three years.

Solomon Islands has six main islands, Choiseul, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Malaita, Guadalcanal, and Makira, which are characterized by rugged and mountainous landscapes of volcanic origin. Between and beyond the bigger islands are hundreds of smaller volcanic islands and low-lying coral atolls. All of the mountainous islands of volcanic origin are forested with many coastal areas surrounded by fringing reefs and lagoons. More than 300 of the 994 islands are inhabited.

According to the country’s National Determined Contribution (NDC) 2021 report, Solomon Islands hope is on the Paris Agreement's ambition to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels if it is to withstand the risks and impacts posed by climate change.

A study carried out by World Vision Solomon Islands shows that warmer seawater, coral bleaching, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, soil salinization, changes to tidal patterns, and population growth are all connected, and negatively impacting the marine environment.

Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management, and Meteorology says sea levels will rise by as much as 1 meter by 2100, increasing the level of risks to low-lying coastal communities throughout the country. Some of these risks include increased coastal erosion due to the rising sea levels currently being experienced in low-lying areas.

The rising sea levels also expose these communities to other risks such as coastal saltwater intrusion, which is a serious problem for coral atolls and which leads to decreased levels of freshwater supplies and increased risks to communities’ food gardens and food security in general.

I accompanied 65-year-old, Freedom Tozaka – the Principal Education Officer of Western Province Education Authority on September this year to see firsthand the effect of climate change on islands close to Gizo, the capital of Western Province in Solomon Islands.

A few minutes’ boat drive west from the Western Provincial capital, Gizo, lies the wreckage of Nusa Evil Island. The island was once a hotspot for communities around Gizo to go for a picnic in the 90s, early 2000 until mid this year when sea level rise invaded the island.

 “It is upsetting and surprising that this island went underwater in less than three years. This is a beautiful island with a long sandy beach. It was a haven for people who came and spent their time here,” Tezuka said.

He adds that Nusa Ivili was an inhabited island full of life with beautiful orchid flowers around the island giving a sweet aroma for people visiting the island.

“Fish and other seafood were also abundant – a perfect island to take nap while entertained by the sound of the seabirds and the cold sea breeze coming from Kolombangara Island,” Mr.Tozaka said while shaking his head.

He recalled he and his friend went to the Island back in 2018 for a barbeque after returning from a trip to Shortland Islands.

In her statement when launching the Emissions Gap Report 2021, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen said Climate change is no longer a future problem but it’s a ‘now’ problem.

“As we saw this year, devastating impacts are spreading across the globe and growing ever stronger. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us a few months ago that we have a 50 percent chance of exceeding a 1.5°C temperature threshold within the next few decades,” she said.

Heartbroken with the scene beforehand, the skipper starts the engine and we traveled further down to a few small islands that were also threatened by climate change.

Cruising past a few beautiful islands, the conversation drew to a close as we approached Mburuburu island, Nusa Belama Islands, and Sulumania Island.

This time it was difficult for Mr.Tozaka as he had a close connection with the small islands.

Some of the small islands belong to Mr.Tozaka’s tribe and now they are eaten up piece by piece, the culture and traditional heritage which connects the tribe with the islands are at risk while some important history has already gone.

Mr.Tozaka’s connection to the islands came a long way since headhunting days and now the tales of headhunting days are partly gone. In the past, warriors of respective tribes fought to claim ownership of the islands and according to Mr.Tozaka, this was how his tribe conquered the islands.

A ridge of a sandy beach full of life connecting these Islands is drowning. One can barely see the landscape underwater.

When he was a child, Mr, Tozaka used to travel to the inhabited islands with his parents on a Seagull Engine for a picnic every weekend.

 “These islands are our lives; we are connected to these islands and what lives within. We are helpless as climate change robbed us without warning. We cannot do much to save these islands,” Mr.Tozaka said.

He said the islands’ landscape is getting smaller and there’s not much life within them, unlike in the 80s where people shared the paradise islands with the seabirds.

There is no official record showing the exact number of islands disappearing around Gizo in recent years but, 55-year-old Patrick Vilaka has his own maths.

Mr. Vilaka is a well-known boat driver around Gizo and he has been traveling around the islands for over 30 years.

“I think close to three small islands have perished recently around Gizo but people did not take this happening seriously due to lack of awareness.

“To me, many low-lying islands are at risk. I’ve traveled around this province and I saw lots of islands that are at risk. The islands that we visit today are just a top of this issue,” he said.

Evidence of the effect on the islands we visited was obvious. We show that the islands are getting smaller due to soil erosion caused by sea-level rise. I’m curious about how one village I’ve visited earlier this year lived through this adversity.

A small island close to Bhurubhuru island eaten up by the sea and will soon disappear in the next 7 to 10 years.

On our way back, I told the driver to stop at a village called Fishing Village. The name of the village says it all. These people depend entirely on sea resources to survive.

Fishing Village is less than five minutes drive from Gizo. The village is built on coral surrounded by muddy mangroves. Fifty-two-year-old Emma Eau calls the place her home.

“I came here with my father and mother when I was eight. This place was full of mud, there was no land. My father with the support of my mother builds this place with corals.

“It was hard work paid off by my parents for us to call home but there was another concern. We realized that the sea invaded our land during high tides. It worsened when there was a storm. Sea level could reach up to the floor of my old kitchen,” she said.

Mrs. Edau said finding seafood such as sea shell and reef fish are also becoming difficult putting pressure on women who depend on the easy catch to feed their families.

She said sea level rise has caused coral bleaching as a result of rising sea temperature causing acidification in the mangroves killing a few types of mud shells where women normally go and pick for their meal.

“We depend on sea resources for everything; our food and money among other things.

“Most women in my village are not employed so we normally sell fish at Gizo market to meet our needs.

“We pay our children fees, uniforms, and also other household needs from the money we get.

 “This is our life, there is no option or choice,” Mrs. Edau said.

She said fishing has also been difficult as catch continues to decrease over the years.

Mrs. Edau said men of her village have to travel far to catch enough fish to sell at the market.

Mrs. Edau is originally from Malaita province but has been living in Western Province most of her life.

She called Fishing Village her home and as a mother, she is desperate to relocate her family to higher ground behind her village.

“Our village leaders have discussed this idea with the landowners but there is no green light for now. We hope landowners will allow us to relocate to their land in the future,” Mrs. Edau said.

In July this year, the government announced that technical studies and community consultation for the development of relocation guidelines for low-lying atolls and artificial islands vulnerable to climate change will commence soon as preparation and logistic work are finalized.

The report states that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) had contracted an international group in partnership with the Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Survey (MLHS) to develop the relocation guidelines

It is still unclear which communities that will be part of the relocation program.

Though Solomon Islands contributes very little to global emissions the clock is ticking for Mrs.Edau and her family.

The islands we visited earlier also risk sinking – meaning Mr.Tozaka will lose everything when that happens.

End of quote.

Yours sincerely

Frank Short

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