New thinking required to help people cope with expected climate change disasters.

In less than 30 years New Zealand could be staring down the same "extremely desperate" disaster scenario now threatening the existence of many islands in the Pacific.

Professor Andreas Neef, a disaster recovery expert at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts, says rising sea levels caused by global warming are having a disastrous impact in the Pacific.

Five small, uninhabited islands in the Solomon Islands archipelago have been swallowed by the sea in recent decades according to a 2016 University of Queensland study, and Neef says atoll-states like Kiribati are in danger of becoming uninhabitable in the near future.

"The region is in an extremely desperate situation and I'm not sure how many of the atoll islands can continue to exist," he says. "And what we see happening in the Pacific now could be what New Zealand will face in 20 to 30 years."

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New Zealand has so far escaped the worst effects because the oceans around us are still cool enough to deflect the worst impact of storms, but he says this may no longer be the case if sea temperatures continue to rise, meaning the seriousness of climate change-induced disaster can't be underestimated.

"In the last four years UN figures show that 60 million people in over 100 countries have been displaced by flooding, droughts and storms," he says.

Neef, who has spent three years researching how rural communities in the Pacific and parts of southeast Asia cope with disaster, believes carbon-intensive countries like New Zealand have a responsibility to up the game in combating global warming, not only because it is in our self-interest but because "the atmosphere is a shared space.

"Those who have the least carbon-intensive lifestyles (like Pacific Island nations) actually suffer the worst consequences," he says. "There are psycho-social effects too; one person I met was so traumatised they lost the ability to speak for a time, while I have also witnessed others who can no longer look out to sea without having a panic attack.

"Some people no longer invest in furniture anymore as they say it'll either get swept away in the next flood or blown away in the next hurricane."

Neef's project, Climate Change Adaptation in Post-Disaster Recovery Processes is funded by the Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research and comes as the issue is considered one of the most crucial facing humankind.

NASA has warned global sea levels have risen by about 17cm in the last 100 years alone while Fiji has recorded an average sea level increase of 6mm every year since 1993, a figure above the global average (about 3.17mm).

And a new study published in the journal Science Advances says most low-lying atoll islands are likely to become uninhabitable by the middle of the century as they become increasingly affected by frequent flooding, lack of freshwater and damage to infrastructure.

Neef's work has primarily focused on Fiji - considered one of countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts - and Cambodia, although he has also carried out studies in Vanuatu, Tonga, Thailand, Indonesia and Pacific Island communities in Auckland.

He says Fiji has had three major floods in recent years and in 2016 was hit by Cyclone Winston, the country's worst recorded natural disaster. It claimed 44 lives and caused $US1.4 billion worth of damage.

The country has also suffered from multiple droughts – another consequence of global warming. Since 1978 it has experienced six major droughts lasting between 17 and 20 months, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Neef says Fijians are extremely resilient in the face of these disasters.

"But their efforts to adapt keep getting destroyed and this begins to really affect their motivation after a while. They live in a multi-risk zone – the next disaster could be a flood, a drought, a tsunami or a hurricane – and it is tough for them when they don't always know what to expect.

"They might be safer moving to higher ground inland, for example, but then they would lose access to their fishing grounds and the chiefs and elders, in particular, don't want the communities to leave the land of their ancestors."

Neef says some farmers in Cambodia have relocated their homes to higher ground.

"While this may make one household safer, when they clear land for agriculture purposes, it actually puts people living downhill more at risk to flash foods due to deforestation.

"Then there are people I met in Fiji who built elevated homes after flooding, only to have them knocked down during a cyclone."

Neef says it is difficult to give people a prescriptive formula for action when no-one knows what the next disaster will be.

"But people need to be more flexible, to re-wire traditional thinking because climate change is changing everything," he says. "One of the best ways to adapt is to have strong community cohesion and networks of support because no-one can cope on their own."

He believes this is where Pacific Island people have an advantage and can provide lessons for New Zealand.

His research with Pacific Island communities in Auckland, which is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) under the so-called Resilience Challenge, shows they bring with them the experience in disaster adaptation they have developed in their home nations.

"We see them as leaders here because they know what to do; if some large disaster struck Auckland, Pacific Island people would be among the best prepared."

Professor Neef is the director of Development Studies at The University of Auckland.
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