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Warm Waters: Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands form a spectacular archipelago of islands, volcanoes and coral atolls off the eastern edges of Papua New Guinea. The islands are rich in indigenous culture and visually stunning. This Pacific idyll is now facing severe challenges that are threatening its long term sustainability. In what is thought to be one of the first scientific confirmations of the impact of climate change on Pacific nations, five uninhabited islands ranging in size from one to five hectares have recently been submerged by the sea which has been rising by as much as 10mm a year around the Solomon Islands. Locals have also seen a steep rise in natural disasters such as flash floods in 2014 which killed 22 people, caused widespread destruction and displaced almost 10,000 islanders. A recent study, led by Simon Albert from the University of Queensland, sees rates of change in the Solomon Islands being experienced globally in the second half of the 21st century, thus placing the islands at the frontline of climate change.

The remote Ontong Java Atoll, a speck of land to the north of the main archipelago and one of the remotest inhabited islands in the world, is home to some 3,000 people and is experiencing increasingly volatile weather patterns. Strong winds, storms and cyclones have started to eat away at the meagre 12 square kilometres of living space and are threatening the very existence of this community which has no where else to escape to. Adding to their woes is increasing food insecurity as rising sea levels have started to salinate the soil, making it unsuitable for growing crops. Traditional methods of farming are starting to fail and locals are facing a real and imminent threat to the survival of their life and culture on their tiny island.

Migration from Ontong Java to the 'mainland' started in the 1970s, with people gravitating to what has become known as Lord Howe Settlement, after the former name of Ontong Java, on the outskirts of Honiara, the national capital.

But while people migrated in search of jobs and better medical care in the decades past, the main reason today is because of the diminishing prospects of life on Ontong Java.What was a mere makeshift camp of semi-permanent huts has recently expanded into a community of some 800 to 1,000 people living in a labyrinth of shanty houses. Half of the population of Lord Howe Settlement is children and youths.

Father Nigel Kepaepa, a community leader and activist, thinks that most of the more recent arrivals to Lord Howe Settlement are 'climate change refugees' who have left Ontong Java fearing for their future. To make matters worse, the settlement has now become so overcrowded that these 'refugees' may be facing the same situation again. Flooding, receding shorelines and collapsing infrastructure are beginning to make the settlement unviable and Kepaepa believes that with five to ten years, people will have to pick up and move, yet again.

He worries that the minority Polynesian culture, closely tied to ancestral lands and rituals, will be diluted and disappear as islanders are forced to move into the majority Melanesian communities whose language and traditions are completely different.

By the end of the 21st century, scientists predict that water levels around the Solomon Islands could rise by as much as 50cm, making life on many smaller islands unsustainable and severing the connecting between people and their ancestral lands. The current experience of the Ontong Javanese highlights the urgency of environmental changes caused by climate change which are threatening the very existence of peoples and cultures in the Pacific region and will spread beyond the realm of small island nations.
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