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Climate Change in Melanesia

From Melanesia News, the newsletter of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, Issue 66, Summer 2010.
The image is a satellite picture of the Carteret Islands, which are being evacuated due to sea-level rises.

Changing Environment – the impact of climate change

In proportion to its size, Solomon Islands is one of the countries in the world which will be hardest hit by climate change and the people are among those communities who will be worst affected.

Particular problems include the ‘flooding’ of Ontong Java and neighbouring Tasman Atoll and the possible ‘sinking’ of other coral atoll communities, such as Sikaiana and the Reef Islands. The destruction of the ‘artificial island’ communities in Malaita, such as Lau Lagoon and damage to coral reefs will also affect fishing and tourism. Rising water tables are likely to destroy or adversely affect agriculture, especially on the coastal fringes, atolls and the Guadalcanal Plains. The increased rainfall in the wet seasons and increased incidence of tropical cyclones is already leading to flooding and damage to food gardens. In Solomon Islands, this problem is made worse by unsustainable logging practices resulting in extensive deforestation.

With rises in temperature, rainfall and increased flooding, malaria and other mosquito borne diseases are also on the rise. Though on the positive side, slightly increased temperatures and rainfall may permit more productive agricultural use at higher altitudes on mountainous islands such as Malaita, Guadalcanal and Isabel.

With the exception of deforestation, similar issues arise in Vanuatu. New Caledonia, being in the temperate zone, is less affected.

Climate change will add to social problems due to urban drift and land disputes, and by putting more pressure on land resources due to internal displacement. At worst, this may trigger further civil war in the Solomon Islands, and at the least will lead to increased violence and weakening of law and order. The economy will also suffer due to the changes of agricultural output and reduced tourism. Governments will be weakened by economic pressures and population movement. It is unclear if population growth will be affected; increased infant mortality due to malaria may be offset by larger families as parents seek to ensure continuity of family in the face of increased infant mortality.

Unlike Western nations where there is strong central government and a separation between church and state, in Melanesia government is comparatively weak. The Melanesian sense of identity puts tribe, island and religion above loyalty to government or nation. Consequently the churches will have a key role in responding to climate change, and will have to take a leading social role. In particular ACoM, as the largest denomination in the Solomon Islands and the second largest in Vanuatu will have a major role to play.

There are many challenges for ACoM as detailed below:

‘Assisting sinking communities’

Almost all the communities faced with loss of their homes due to rising sea levels are Anglican. Ontong Java, Sikaiana and the Reef Islands are all Anglican islands. In conjunction with Government, the Church will need to determine the extent of the problem and the likely time-line for evacuation; identify available land for resettlement; mediate in reconciliation between traditional landowners and climate refugees; and provide assistance with logistics and recreating sustainable communities. But perhaps most importantly the Church will have to provide spiritual and more direction in a time of great crisis and sorrow; and help the people to keep their cultures going when in exile from their homes.

Develop the capacity to respond to disasters

There are likely to be more adverse weather reactions, and the ability of government to respond is currently limited. In many ways the Churches are better placed to develop comprehensive ways of responding to natural disasters, and will have a crucial assisting role even with improved response by Government agencies. However, ACoM as yet does not have a developed capacity, and in the past responses have been ad hoc. It is also important to work with other Churches and agencies, and to co-ordinate our responses to ensure effective use of limited resources.

Education

People have to be educated about climate change and its likely effects. To the limited extent that Melanesians contribute (for example, through deforestation) education is the first step in correcting errors.

Develop Leaders

Education in affected communities is best done by teachers and leaders in those communities. These communities also need their own leaders to represent them on the national and international stage. ACoM is well placed with assistance from Government and outside partners to identify and train those leaders who will represent communities.

Working with outside partners

In many respects ACoM is better placed than government to work with outside partners, especially our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion and other sister churches; but also to work with NGOs and aid agencies. In this way resources can be better mobilised. However the tendency of all institutions to bureaucratise needs to be avoided.
 
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