A new Atlantis for the Torres Strait

Author: Mara Barby, Global Voices and CQU

Islands in the Asia Pacific region could disappear in the future should sea levels continue to rise in the coming decades. The reality is such that in a generation, Islanders could be forced to abandon their homes due to climate impacts.

The World Bank has recognised climate change as a key issue in its agenda. Millions of dollars have been pushed into climate change impact mitigation in the region. President Kim has acknowledged that the development of countries could go backwards if the issue is not addressed. And earlier this year, when talking about climate change to an audience in the Marshall Islands, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: ‘the science is clear. It is irrefutable, and it is alarming’.

Island atoll nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu have also hit the headlines in recent years over their disappearing islands and the dramatic risk from climate change.

But while Australia has distributed climate finance to many of these small island nations in the region, one of its own most climate-vulnerable areas has often been left out of the spotlight. The Torres Strait Islands are comprised of over 150 islands and they are home to several thousand Australians — they also exist in much the same conditions as several of the small island states in the Asia Pacific. Low-elevation coastal communities, remoteness and vulnerability to natural disasters make them highly exposed to climate change risk.

Coconut Island, for example, has lost 60 metres of land since 2000, and residents of Yorke Island have noticed the increasing impact of climate change on their homes, especially through land erosion. The situation is such that within the next generation, thousands of Islanders may not be able to continue living in their homes, with plans for the relocation of over 2,000 residents having been made as early as 2007.

But relocation is a last resort, according to the Torres Strait’s Climate Change Strategy (2010–2013). Much like Australia’s aid agency, AusAID, and the World Bank have supported sea-wall construction projects in other Asia Pacific islands, the Torres Strait Regional Council has undertaken to construct a protective barrier. Their strategy also plans to use risk science to help direct local action on climate change mitigation and building community resilience.

For a community of only 8,000 or so people, such a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change is impressive. The strategy shows the commitment and resilience of the communities in the region, and the integrated approach outlined in the strategy addresses each aspect of concern for human security.

The Torres Strait Council may have developed and committed to a climate change strategy, but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that the area should be the focus of greater attention. Murray Island is famous for being the birthplace of Australian indigenous land rights, but even such a significant place has often been forgotten in national, regional and global climate change forums. An historic location for Australian history could end up falling victim to the effects of climate change, and risks being lost forever.

Many Islanders’ lives revolve around the sea and the coastal environment. Food, money and traditional culture all rely on its presence and survival. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion and unpredictable weather patterns are affecting the human security of Islanders’ lives. After generations of living on the islands, residents no longer feel secure in their environment, with high tides having flooded homes and damaged roads.

Approximately 1,500 people live in the northwest and central Torres Strait Islands, some parts of which are less than one metre above sea level. Communities are also often only metres from the beach, meaning lives would soon be affected by any rise in sea levels. If no longer-term strategy is put in place, and no assistance offered beyond vague assurances, the Torres Strait Islanders could face just as alarming a future as those living in Tuvalu and Kiribati.

The World Bank has acknowledged the importance of climate change and its associated effects on economies, development and health. However, the Bank needs to ensure that it does not solely focus its projects on mitigation and large-scale adaptation in urbanised areas. The need to ensure every level of society is involved in adapting to, and mitigating, the effects of climate change is enormously important because those most at risk are also among the region’s poorest.

People’s lives, cultures and security are reliant upon action being taken in a timely, responsible and suitable manner. In order to address the issue in the Torres Strait, the Australian government also needs to reconsider the assistance it provides in order to better reflect the impact that climate change could have on the Islanders’ security.

Mara Barby is a student at Central Queensland University and was a Global Voices delegate to the 2013 World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings in Washington, DC.

 

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