Posted inStory / Solomon Islands

Living on the Edge of Climate Change

The sinking island of Fanalei

STANDING outside his home at Fouele settlement, Fredrick Maeaba gazes across the calm waters of Port Adam passage in the southern region of Malaita.

His eyes were fixed on Fanalei Island, located some four kilometres across the waters.

He was once a resident on that island.

But six years ago in 2011, Maeaba packed his bag and relocated with his family to Fouele settlement on the main land.

Reason: climate change.

Over the last 30 years, it was estimated that about 80 per cent of houses on Fanalei Island have washed to sea.

And over 400 of the 500 residents of the island relocated to the mainland due to sea level rise.

“There are a few families still living on the island but I believe it’s only a matter of time before they will be forced to leave,” Maeaba, who does not know his exact birthday, but claims to be 90, said.

“I left the island in 2011 because I don’t see a future for my children and grandchildren there,” he added.

“The island can no longer sustain its residents.

“As a kid growing up on Fanalei, we used to grow all our food on the island.

“That’s no longer the case. In fact nothing, except the mangroves, grew on the island nowadays,” Maeaba, a former police officer, stated.

But the mangroves, too, may soon be gone if sea level rise continues at the current rate.

The sea level near the Solomons has been rising by eight millimetres per year compared to the global average of 2.8 to 3.6 mm, according to the Pacific Climate Change Science Programme.

This has put many of the country’s low-lying islands in a precarious situation.

Recently, scientists have discovered the disappearance of five islands in the Solomons due largely to sea level rise.

Fanalei, it is feared, is heading down the same path.

“The island is now completely different from what it used to be before the 1980s,” Maeaba said.

Desmond Waita, an educationist currently working as director of education with the Anglican Church of Melanesian (ACOM) in Honiara, was also born and raised on Fanalei.

After several years away, he returned home last Christmas for his holiday.

“Fanalei is no longer the island I used to know,” Waita said in an earlier interview.

As a child growing up on Fanalei, Waita could still vividly remember fetching water from the well on the island.

That well is now inundated with salt water and is no longer of any use to the people.

He also remembered pawpaw, breadfruits, melons, banana and other edible fruits growing everywhere on the island.

These are no more.

Today the few families still on the island fetch their drinking water from tanks and grow their food on the mainland.

Sea level rise have made the island barren and no longer suitable for plants to grow.

Their nearby fishing grounds are also running low on fish supply. They now have to paddle further to catch fish.

And like many village communities across the country, the church is the epicenter of life for the people.

The residents of Fanalei built their church in the middle of the village.

Today, the church was filled with sand and sea.

“When there is high tide, the church is usually inundated,” Waita said.

“So the villagers have to wait for the tide to go down before they could begin their service.”

Waita experienced this first hand when he was holidaying on the island.

“We have to wait for the tides to go down and the seats to dry before we start the service.”

Climate change is also affecting the daily chores of women on Fanalei.

When there’s high tide and their kitchens were flooded, they cannot prepare meals for their families.

They have to wait for the low tide and their kitchens to dry before they can use them again.

“Life on the island is no longer the same as before,” Waita recalls.

“It has been drastically changed by sea level rise.

“For sure, there’s no future on this island we once called home,”

In response to the threat of climate change, the national government came up with its National Climate Change Policy in 2012.

The policy outlines how the government is going to deal with the threats and effects of climate change.

It also acknowledges that climate change is a sustainable development issue.

The policy points out that the main vulnerable sectors are:

1) Agriculture and food security,

2) Water supply and sanitation,

3) Human health,

4) Human settlements,

5) Fisheries and marine resources,

6) Coastal Protection,

7) Infrastructure, 8) Waste management, and;

9) Tourism.

In 2011, then Minister for Environment John Moffat Fugui announced Fanalei and its nearby sister island of Walande would be amongst the first atolls and islands the government was looking at implementing relocation programs over the next two years.

The relocation, he said, will be funded under a $30 million European Union funding for climate change.

Six years on, the residents of Fanalei said they are yet to see or receive any funding assistance from the national government.

“None of us who moved from Fanalei to Fouele received any assistance from the government,” Maeaba said.

“We’ve moved because of the urgency and the need to move out from the island,” he added.

“If the government has funds to relocate our people, then those still on the island would need that money in order to move over to the mainland.”

For the few families still living on Fanalei, relocation would be the last option.

“I was born and raised up on this island. It’s the only place I called home,” Joseph Alatala told the author of this article during a recent visit to the island.

“Yes, as you can see here, the island is sinking. We have no future on Fanalei,” Alatala continued.

“Most of our relatives have moved on to the mainland.

“The few of us still living on Fanale are here because of our strong connection to this island.

“Relocation is not cheap. It’s starting a whole new life again.

“Of course one day we will be forced to leave.

“We hope when that happens, the government will assist us to relocate,” Alatala stated.

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