Hundreds of people living in the Torres Strait face the prospect of having to leave their homes in the coming decades as rising seas engulf their low-lying islands, a new report says.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), the local government body for most of the 20 or so populated islands, is warning that some communities may become uninhabitable if, as projected, sea levels rise by 52 to 98cm by the end of this century.

Already, low-lying communities in the strait - which separates the far northeastern tip of the Australian mainland from Papua New Guinea - are experiencing abnormally high king tides which flood homes, roads, graveyards and cause major coastal erosion.

The fear is that as the ocean warms and sea levels rise further, some islands may have to be abandoned.


Yet the threat to people's lives and livelihoods seems barely to register in Canberra, which only recently - after years of lobbying by the islanders - released funds for the construction and repair of seawalls on Saibai and Boigu, two of the worst affected communities.

The prospect of relocation is not one which locals like to contemplate, with their strong links to the land and after generations of living by the sea.

But Joseph Elu, chairman of the TSRA, believes that even with better sea walls some islands will have to be abandoned. And for residents, the hardest thing to leave will be their ancestral graves, he told the ABC.

The TSRA has just released a new climate change strategy which notes that "even small increases in sea level due to climate change will have an immense impact on Torres Strait communities, potentially threatening their viability".

The vulnerability of communities "needs to be fully appreciated by governments and policymakers".

Some of the inhabited islands are granite or volcanic, encompassing some higher land to which locals could, theoretically, relocate. But six are low-lying coral cays or swampy mud islands with next to no elevation.

On Saibai, locals are squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the encroaching ocean and an encroaching swamp. They have already raised their houses and sandbagged burial plots.

Elu said inhabitants of the flattest islands were unsure whether they should try to adapt to climate change or accept an unpalatable reality.


"The biggest question is, what do people want to do with their lives? Is it good being resilient, or are we trying to stand in front of something that will wash over us any time?"

The strategy describes the island communities as among the most vulnerable in Australia to rising seas.