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Climate-threatened Solomon Islanders prepare for evacuation

by Catherine Wilson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 November 2013 11:25 GMT

Communities living on low-lying islands in Malaita Province, in the Solomon Islands, are being severely impacted by rising seas and face displacement. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Catherine Wilson

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But in a country where tension over land has led to civil conflict, finding new homes on new islands will be difficult, officials warn

AUKI, MALAITA PROVINCE, Solomon Islands – In the Solomon Islands, where the sea level rise of 8 millimetres per year is almost three times the global average, survival of communities on the low-lying atoll of Ontong Java is already threatened. 

But identifying a new home for those who are eventually displaced will be difficult, even in this sprawling nation of more than 900 islands located northwest of Fiji, in the southwest Pacific region. 

“The number one obstacle will be access to land,” said Hudson Kauhiona, deputy director of the government’s climate change division, in the capital, Honiara. “It is going to be a very big challenge when moving people.”

More than 87 percent of land in the Solomon Islands is owned by indigenous clans and extended families and the remaining fraction is administered by the state.  The majority of the population of 550,000 live by subsistence agriculture in rural areas and less than 20 percent are in formal employment.  Therefore, customary land is vital to people’s food security, livelihoods and provision for the next generation.

“Selling customary land is not common,” said Alfred Gegeo, a traditional landowner in the Central Kwara’ae region of Malaita Island, the nation’s rainforest-covered main island.  “Some of the reasons we would not sell our land is because it always brings benefits to our families and it contains the resources we need, such as water, rivers and forests. Also we need our land to provide for population growth.”

Resettlement is the last option for atoll communities impacted by climate change.  But the situation is becoming critical as the encroaching sea erodes Ontong Java, which is an average of 2-3 metres (6-10 feet) above sea level and has just 12 square kilometres (4.6 square miles) of land area.

Adaptation activities, including an atoll agriculture project and installation of rainwater tanks to provide salt-free drinking water, are currently being implemented by the Anglican Church of Melanesia’s mission programme.

“The focus of our energy at the moment is the food security project, so they are able to stay and live on the island for as long as possible,” said George Bogese, aid and programme officer for the Church of Melanesia’s Board of Mission.

Production of swamp taro, the sole staple food apart from fish, is failing due to increasing soil salinity. An atoll permaculture farming system, which involves the cultivation of fruit trees, salt resistant vegetables and root crops, has been introduced to try and boost crop diversity on limited land.

But people on Ontong Java believe they are living on borrowed time.

“We are suffering because there is not enough food and water for everybody,” said Hugo Kahano and Richard Poki, members of the House of Chiefs, in Luaniua village.  “We rely on imported food delivered by boat once a month, but this is not enough. We need relief supplies now.”


Relocating approximately 3,000-5,000 people from the atoll to the main Malaita Island, more than 400 kilometres away, is being explored by the national and provincial governments.  Kahano and Poki responded that communities on Ontong Java must be consulted on the migration process and insisted that “our people must make the final decision” on the place of resettlement.

Pearson Simi, Malaita provincial disaster officer in the principal town of Auki, claimed that some available government land had been identified in Central and South Malaita, but this alone would not be enough.

“The next step will be consultation with customary landowners,” he said. Negotiations to acquire traditionally owned land are often long and complicated due to ownership being administered through oral law in the absence of official land registration. Such negotiations also can involve very high demands for compensation or remuneration.

Land disputes are common in the Solomon Islands and were central to the five-year civil conflict known as the Tensions, which brought the country to near political and economic collapse in 2003. A significant trigger was resentment by youth on Guadalcanal Island over the selling of customary land by the previous generation to settlers from other provinces and the loss of their inheritance.

Competition over land will only increase in Malaita Province, which already has a population density of 40 people per square kilometre and is home to about 170,000 or one third of the national population.

Kauhiona predicts that “while there will be clear boundaries to the land where people will be allowed to come and stay, the (migrant) population will increase and in one or two decades they may go beyond those boundaries. It is a living process.”

He stressed that consultations with the displaced and host communities before people move will be imperative to preventing conflict in the future.

“People really have to understand what they are in for. For the people who will be moving, (that’s) what they will be losing, and for the people at the receiving end, what they should be expecting.”

The Solomon Islands is not only on the frontline of climate change, but also a pioneer in developing new strategies to deal with climate-related displacement. The European Union is currently assisting the Solomon Islands government in developing its first climate change relocation policy, which is expected to be finalised by the end of 2014.

“According to scientific projections, the climate change situation is not going to get better,” Kauhiona said. “Cases such as Ontong Java, where people have to move to other islands, will only increase. So we might as well put ourselves in a better position now, rather than in 30 or 50 years time when things are happening and we aren’t prepared.”

According to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program, ocean acidification, extreme rainfall and temperatures will steadily increase in the Solomon Islands, while the sea could rise by up to 15 centimetres (6 inches) by 2030. Looking ahead is vital given that an estimated 1.7 million people in the Pacific Islands could be displaced due to climate change by mid-century, programme officials say.

Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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