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Papua New Guinea: "The islands are shrinking"

By Oxfam

In Papua New Guinea, an entire cultural group—the Carteret Islanders—now faces relocation due to the impacts of rising sea levels and submerging islands.

The Carterets are six small islands that surround an atoll made of sand; their highest point lies just 5 feet above sea level. The Islanders have fought for more than twenty years against the intruding Pacific Ocean, building sea walls and planting mangroves. But within the space of a generation, the islands' shoreline has receded over 60 feet. During storm surges, salt water washes away homes, destroys vegetable gardens, and contaminates fresh water supplies. For a population of 2,500, largely dependent on subsistence agriculture, the impact has been devastating.

"For the Carteret Islanders, we cannot wait any longer because the islands are shrinking," says Ursula Rakova, who owns land on Huene Island, now divided into two smaller islands and disappearing fast. "When it's high tide, we can see salt water bubbling out of the land. We can no longer make gardens."

"We are one of those who are going to be displaced very soon," she said.

Rakova leads a group lobbying for the islanders' plight to be given more attention. Oxfam has supported a speaking tour for them to publicize their predicament.

In November 2005, the Papua New Guinea government authorized the evacuation of the islands, ten families at a time, to the nearest large island, Bougainville, which is located over 80 miles away. The evacuation stalled, but new funding promised by the Autonomous Bougainville Government in November this year could see Islanders re-commence the relocation in 2008. The Islanders believe that their home could be largely submerged by 2015.

A plantation has been secured where the Islanders can relocate. But there is no basic infrastructure on this land. The Carteret Islanders need somewhere that they can settle together as a community with a shared set of values and cultural identity. They urgently need 3,000 new homes, schools, health care and other basic social services.

Their story illustrates how vulnerable small island states and coastal communities are to rising sea levels caused by climate change. The Carteret Islanders, with a carbon footprint among the lowest in the world, will be among the first to have to abandon their islands because of rising seas caused by emissions from other nations.

So far, neither the Papua New Guinea government nor the Autonomous Bougainville Government have developed climate change adaptation plans. Both have been criticized by their citizens for this.

The Carteret Islanders' story repeats itself elsewhere in the Pacific. In Tuvalu, lowlands are flooded by seawater at high tide and coastal erosion eats away at the remaining land. As a result, saltwater intrusion is badly affecting drinking water and food production. Similar problems are occurring in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, where at least two islets have already disappeared.