By Ben Namakin, Conservation Society of Pohnpei
Micronesians, along with our other Pacific Islands neighbors, are among the lesser contributors to global warming, but we are at great risk from its negative impacts, especially rising sea levels and temperatures.
The Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea are fighting a losing battle against the ocean. It is estimated the six islands will disappear into the water by 2015. Though some islands in Micronesia are mountainous like Palau and Pohnpei, even in these places the majority of the population lives in the coastal areas.
I am not a scientist, but I have already seen changes within the environment. During my childhood on the low lying atoll of Kiribati, we never experienced severe sea flooding. However, in recent years several storm surges have hit the islands causing heavy coastal erosion. These incidents have huge costs, both financially and emotionally, for the people of Kiribati, who have had to build new homes and dig up their deceased relatives from their graves to bury them further inland.
Since moving to Pohnpei in 2001 I have seen other changes. While studying for my high school degree I would spend my free time hanging out with my friends on a small islet name Dekehtik, located on a barrier reef a couple of miles away from the school. It was my favorite camping and snorkeling spot. In 2005, I heard that the islet had split in two. I went to see for myself, with my own eyes, and there it was, badly destroyed by sea flooding.
As rising sea levels slowly encroach upon our islands, there are many negative consequences on biodiversity and the health and well being of Micronesian people.
Saltwater intrusion affects the quality of water in wells, and puts stress on plant species. For example in Kiribati, pandanus trees used for house construction, local medicine, food, and traditional clothing are dying as the seawater slowly seeps into the ground. And when local foods are destroyed by saltwater or during storm surges and flooding then the people may end up depending on imported foods.
The most noticeable damage caused by rising sea temperatures is coral bleaching. We have all seen the ugly sight of our beautiful coral reefs turned into colorless wastelands due to coral bleaching. When the coral is bleached, the fish lose their habitat. This impacts all of the marine species we depend on for living.
Many of us think climate change is an environmental problem. But it is also likely to have a serious impact on the economy in the Pacific Islands region. During the 1998 El Nino, a massive coral bleaching killed one-third of Palau's coral reef, causing annual tourism revenues to drop by nine percent and the local economy to lose an estimated $91 million.
Roads, airports and port facilities will be at serious risk from flooding and storm surges. Such damages could disrupt food and energy supplies and tourism.
Climate change can also be viewed as a threat to our human rights. What makes us unique is our culture. The crops we grow, the type of fish we eat from the sea, the local clothing we make from the plant and tree species, our language and many other things are all important to our culture. With our natural resources at risk, our cultures are at risk.
A number of people in Tuvalu, one of the lowest lying atolls in the South Pacific, have been relocated to New Zealand – a fate that is likely to happen to the rest of the low lying atolls in the region. Can they carry on their culture in New Zealand? I don't think so.
Perhaps others nations are more to blame than ourselves for climate change, but this does not excuse us from taking steps to reduce greenhouse emissions ourselves. While we have a moral obligation to support global mitigation efforts, the most important response to climate change for all Pacific Islands is adaptation.
Adaptation involves individuals, communities and governments taking steps to ensure the negative impacts of climate change are minimized, so that our economic, social and environmental future is ensured. We must look forward with hope. While there are solutions out there, action must be taken.March 04, 2011
Ben Namakin is a native Micronesian. He began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy after earning a degree in marine science in Pohnpei. In 2002, a partner organization, the Conservation Society of Pohnpei, hired Namakin as an Environmental Educator to conduct community outreach programs. Namakin has also taught a course on climate change and its implications for island systems at the College of Micronesia.