The Herald and World Vision want to raise $100,000 for the urgent water and sanitation needs in the Hanuabada village of Port Moresby. Each day we'll be reporting on a particular problem for the region and showcasing how World Vision has helped. Today, the rise of sea level.

When the waves surrounded her first house Vasney Aitoaea was frightened. She could hear them crashing around her, and she prayed to God she would survive.

"That first house fell down," she says. "So my husband built a second near the same place. And then the waves came again. And so we built a third, and a fourth, each time further up the beach."

She looks out to the ocean, flat and oily in the grey light.

"The first house was over there, where the sun is on the sea."

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She is pointing about 40m behind her, to a rock that will be covered by water at high tide, but which used to be the edge of the island Kwai, a tiny atoll in the Solomon Islands suffering the effects of a warming ocean.

Vasney Aitoaea, 71, from the island of Kwai, has had to move and rebuild her home five times due to the rise in sea level. Photo / Mike Scott
Vasney Aitoaea, 71, from the island of Kwai, has had to move and rebuild her home five times due to the rise in sea level. Photo / Mike Scott

Rates of sea-level rise in the Solomons over the past two decades were among the highest in the world, averaging around 8mm a year between 1993 and 2012 - compared to below 2mm per year in New Zealand.

Some of the rise in that time has been attributed to natural climate variability, such as El Nino, and the increase has now flattened to 3.6mm a year. But already five islands in the Solomons, a country of 600,000 in remote Melanesia, have disappeared into the Pacific. A further six are so severely eroded that families have had to be relocated, including a whole village. Others have seen salt-water intrusion to the point crops will no longer grow, according to an Australian study published last year.

Kwai, a tiny, white-sand atoll off the east coast of the island Malaita, is one of those at risk.

Community leader Francis Robeni says the island has been eroded to the point it is now small and crowded.

"This island before was a fairly beautiful island," he says. "It stretched out further, 20 or 30m out that way. But during the cyclones, the big seas, the currents it started to erode.

"What you are seeing here are the damages."

Francis Robeni stands on the beach. The small island behind him used to be part of the mainland. Photo / Mike Scott
Francis Robeni stands on the beach. The small island behind him used to be part of the mainland. Photo / Mike Scott

Robeni points to the open-air church, which used to be in the middle of the island, but is now on the shore. Some of the thatched-roof houses, built on dry land, have the ocean lapping around their wooden poles. Huge trees that used to provide shade had been knocked down, their skeletons littering the sandy beach.
"The trees have been damaged by the rough seas. The water just goes right through the island, especially at high tides. It breaks through the island, it damages everything.

"It makes it difficult to build houses. And there is no shade. I really miss the trees."

Robeni is a retired government officer who returned to Kwai to support his community with the changes brought by the rising seas.

However, it's very difficult to help as there is little the villagers can do but leave.

The villagers of Kwai island have had to move their homes due to the rise in sea levels.

"The population of this island is growing really fast. We have 1000 roughly now living on this island. There's no places, no space for people to build on this island. People start to move to the mainland, if they have land here," he says.

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"People find it very hard to leave. But they feel they have to move because they've been affected by the climate change. The people don't really feel secure. People don't feel confident to live in the islands because of the damages."

He says relocation is challenging, however.

"When we are talking about relocation we are talking about moving a whole family. It takes time," he says.

Moving to the mainland is complicated further by land issues. Access to land is one of the biggest issues in the Solomons, where property is held communally and title is often in dispute.

Two girls collect shellfish as the rising sea levels threaten their village. Photo / Mike Scott
Two girls collect shellfish as the rising sea levels threaten their village. Photo / Mike Scott

The Government has said it will help with relocation plans, but the villagers say it is too slow.

Aitoaea, 71, is scared the worst will happen before they can move.

She can only walk with crutches and spends most days sitting in front of a fire, either cooking or talking to her children and grandchildren. Her husband died some years ago, and now she lives with her daughter at her fifth home, still near the shore.

"When the waves come I feel really scared," she says.

"Before, it was hard but I had a husband that could build a new house. That man, he saw the house destroyed four times but he would always build another."

With no way to prevent the sea swallowing yet another home, she will place her faith in her religion.

"I just pray for God to give me peace in my mind and peace in my heart."