Engineer Tihau Bishop has a plan to sustain people on Pacific Islands soon to be swallowed by sea level rise - until they can "leave with dignity and grace".

He's a civil engineer and environmentalist, whose mother is from the Rakahanga Atoll in the northern Cook Islands. Its remaining population of about 80 will have to leave within 35 to 50 years because rising sea level will make life there impossible.

Bishop has worked all over the world as an engineer, but became sickened by the effect concrete has on climate change while working on the flyover bridges for the M25 in southern England. Making cement for concrete releases carbon dioxide, which "kills the atmosphere", he said.

His mother, Turi, was raised on Rakahanga and learned in its whare wānanga. She brought up Bishop and his siblings in Birkenhead, on Auckland's North Shore.

 The atoll of Rakahanga has a population of 80 people, all of whom will have to leave within 35 to 50 years. Photo / Bevan Conley
The atoll of Rakahanga has a population of 80 people, all of whom will have to leave within 35 to 50 years. Photo / Bevan Conley

"We were as Cook Island as you could be, in a North Shore environment."

He was the only one in the family who went to university and, at his mother's wish, he read Rakahanga history, as recorded by Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck). He's lived in the islands and made a plan for their response to climate change.

People on most Pacific Islands will be able to respond to rising sea levels by moving to higher ground. That won't be possible on low atolls like Rakahanga, where food will get scarce and storms fiercer.

The underground lense of freshwater on Rakahanga is getting thinner, and will not be able to continue supporting the trees that produce coconuts - a major food along with fish and dryland taro.

Bishop has designed a $20 million ship, which he said would visit remote atolls across the Pacific monthly. It would include a hospital and dental clinic and keep people safe on the atolls until they are ready to move - taking their history and artefacts.

"We have to do something soon, because the history will disappear when the land is gone. We have to pick the history up carefully and move it to somewhere else."

The ship would "service the needs of atoll people until they determine when they want to leave and they leave with grace and dignity," he said.

That might sound tragic, but he said Rakahanga people are navigators, and used to moving from place to place, surviving and adapting.

They are lucky. The ariki (king) of another Cook Island, Aitutaki, has offered them land to live on. People from other low-lying islands - such as Tuvalu and Tokelau - will likely have to move to New Zealand - the largest island in the Pacific.

Bishop has been working on his idea since 2005, and has set up a "loose" trust, Pacific Atoll Survival Trust (PAST) Aotearoa.


He's looking for funding and staff for this non-profit Pacific-wide response to climate change - which he wants grounded in empathy rather than pity - and he thinks the most likely source will be a body dedicated to research.