Future New Zealand: Paradise lost: Planning for climate refugees

If sea levels rise at predicted rates, many of the low-lying islands in the Pacific will be under water by 2050. Yet there is no coordinated plan for assisting up to 1.7 million displaced people, many of who will be looking to New Zealand for help.
Associate Professor Malakai Koloamatangi heads Massey University's Pasifika Directorate.
Associate Professor Malakai Koloamatangi heads Massey University's Pasifika Directorate.

The prospect of refugees washing up on New Zealand beaches may seem unlikely, but the Pacific will soon face it's own crisis as whole nations flee, not from war, but from climate change. It's not a matter of if; it's a case of when. And despite a great deal of talk, not much has been done to plan for this catastrophic eventuality.

For countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati, the need to evacuate people to safer ground will be a very real prospect in the coming decades.

According to the London School of Economics'Brookings Institute, between 665,000 and 1.7 million people in the Pacific could be displaced or forced to migrate by 2050. Some low-lying atolls have already been submerged and others face issues of food security as saltwater seeps into the land, affecting crops and freshwater supplies.

In some areas of Tuvalu the atoll is only one to two metres above sea level - even moderate-sized waves have the potential to swamp the island. Near the capital, Funafuti, where the atoll is very narrow, waves can literally wash from one side to the other.

But other island states are also facing problems. I've seen islands in Tonga that have disappeared and there are some islands, if approached by sea, that look as if the coconut trees are growing out of the ocean because the land is so low.

But it's not only the land that's in danger. Nations facing the prospect of being displaced also risk losing their culture.

Losing your connection to the land can be catastrophic for cultural identity.

When your link to your homeland is cut because you are forced to shift elsewhere, it affects your sense of self and the way that you live.

We've seen this before - when people from parts of Micronesia, displaced by American nuclear testing or by foreigners' desire for phosphate, were shifted to other parts of the Pacific. The cultural devastation caused is irreparable. The land, the whenua/fonua on which your culture is based, cannot be replaced by someone else's whenua/fonua, so the destruction is complete.

The ultimate irony is the issues facing the Pacific are not of the region's own making and they have no control over the impacts of climate change. The industrialised countries of the world need to sit up and do something; they are morally obliged to help find solutions to the problems they have created.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris one year ago, we saw industrialised nations pay lip service to change. This is because they don't see climate change affecting them in the immediate future. Unfortunately it's those very countries that have the power to slow global warming if they cut carbon emissions. Without drastic change, the prospect of Pacific refugees will become a reality.

New Zealand needs to start thinking seriously about how it will respond to the situation and come up with a structured programme for dealing with some islands in the Pacific becoming uninhabitable. The current government is turning a blind eye, preferring to deny that climate change refugees exist - of course there are political reasons for doing so.

New Zealand needs to start thinking seriously about how it will respond to the situation and come up with a structured programme for dealing with some islands in the Pacific becoming uninhabitable.

After the Paris conference Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji and Tokelau called for an international body to coordinate population movement caused by climate change -an idea that was dropped by the United Nations because of opposition from Australia.

But New Zealand could take the lead through the Pacific Islands Forum to get meaningful planning underway.

New Zealand courts have already heard a small trickle of appeals by Pacific Islanders using climate change factors in a bid to gain refugee status. These bids have, so far, been largely unsuccessful. But there will be a time when such cases become a flood.

While New Zealand will have to consider how many climate refugees it will accept, bringing people to New Zealand isn't the only option. With proper planning, there are other options to explore, including relocation to those Pacific countries facing de-population. Niue could easily accommodate Tuvalu's 10,000 people, for example, and the Cook Islands could also look to grow its population by becoming a refuge.

What Pacific countries also need is funding to raise buildings above predicted sea level increases and safeguard water supplies from saltwater intrusion. This sort of support should be complemented with health and education programmes to prepare Pacific Islanders for 'migration with dignity'- the ability to contribute to other nations' economies as skilled migrant workers.

- NZ Herald

Associate Professor Malakai Koloamatangi heads Massey University’s Pasifika Directorate and is co-director of its Pacific Research and Policy Centre.

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