Cook Islands seeks assistance from New Zealand to help their islands impacted by climate change

Jean-Marie Williams has a chair on his self-made coral jetty, where he sits catching the trade wind and taking in the Manihiki coastline.

The azure ocean looks like it’s oozed out of a postcard but look a little closer and it’s relentlessly hitting the seawall protecting his lagoon-facing home.

“There’s erosion big time, big time erosion because the lagoon side is lower than the ocean,” he said.

“Adaption to climate change is very important because it is happening – you have to live with it and adapt. When the wave gets higher you build your wharf higher.”

Jean-Marie’s not only built a sea wall and L-shaped jetty to protect his home, there are piles of coral rocks and sand which he shovels across his property.

“I have raised my lagoon side where I live and my next door neighbour’s following suit so at the moment we are higher than the village – twice as high as the village,” he said.

For the Manihikians whose flat coral atolls lie 1200 kilometres from the capital Rarotonga and only five metres above sea level, it’s all about mitigation.

They are seeing more and more climate change impacts – a recent king tide swamped much of the land and damaged major infrastructure.

It’s why New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is on a fleeting visit here with a small delegation, including Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown.

He’s keen to show her exactly what the people here are dealing with and what might be helpful.

He told 1News while there’s been international pledges made for climate change resilience projects, it’s been hard to access the funding, especially for some of the smaller things like increasing water storage or foreshore protection.

“We would look at our development partners New Zealand to look at the ways we suggest their funding could be more effectively utilised in islands like Manihiki,” he said.

Welcomed to the island with drums, music and draped with garlands of flowers, Mahuta says it’s clear the people here want to continue living on the land of their ancestors – moving is not an option.

“So from a climate change or climate action point of view, New Zealand needs to be thinking about – and we are – how we partner with the Cook Islands to make this a reality with them,” she said.

New Zealand is upgrading Manihiki’s airport and investing $7.5 million (US$4.2 million) into solar renewable upgrades in the Northern Cook Islands.

The people here are also keen to get their lagoon port upgraded as it continually gets damaged in high seas and plays a crucial role for transportation.

Remote it may be but Manihikians are determined to chart their own course. Now that New Zealand’s Foreign Minister has seen their climate change impact first-hand, they’re hoping Aotearoa will be alongside them to face the challenges that lie ahead.

This story was written by Barbara Dreaver, and originally published at 1News on 18 October 2022.

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