“I hope I die before these islands are covered by the sea.” Eighty-year-old John Sailik was born on the Carteret Islands, a ring of six atolls 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
Life there as a young boy was like a paradise he says, fishing and swimming all day. But those days are finished. The islands will soon be underwater as rising sea levels will leave them submerged within five years. He and the other 3000 inhabitants must leave if they wish to live.
The low lying islands surrounded by white sand and crystal blue sea could be out of a travel brochure for a luxury break. There are no shops, cars or phones. There are a couple of houses with generators, but most people have no electricity.
Seline Netoi lives on one of the smaller atolls, called Huene. She says their island paradise is disappearing under the sea. Originally one island, the rising sea has split Huene into three. Tidal surges have left a debris of branches and coconut tree stumps sticking up through the water. “We’ve lost about 150m of land due to the sea,” she said.
She lives on the island with her husband and disabled son plus one other family. “We survive on coconut milk and fish,” she said. “We have one meal a day. If the sea is too rough to fish or its too windy to climb the coconut trees, we have nothing to eat.”
Her son has a rare skin condition which has left 99 percent of his body covered in sores. He is comfortable on the island, where he can lie on the soft white sand.
“It’s our home, it will be difficult to leave but we must,” said Seline. “We’re not safe here anymore. When the King Tide comes, water floods our home. If there is a cyclone or a tsunami, we’ll be swept away. We’re just waiting to allocated land on Bougainville. The irony is that I left Bougainville during the conflict there in the 1990’s. I was a war refugee and now I’ll be a climate one.”
Islanders say they are losing one to two meters of shoreline to the sea a year. King Tides, especially high tides that occur only a few times a year, can cover the islands completely.
The islanders have tried to build makeshift sea walls out of clam shells and rubbish. So far they have proved ineffective. The sea water washes away the land but also destroys any cultivation, like banana or taro. Hunger is a constant problem on the Carteret Islands.
“Children are too hungry to come to school. There is a lot of malnutrition,” said primary school teacher Leonard Luhat. “Two of our six teachers left because they couldn’t cope with the lack of food.”
The government tries to bring food aid every quarter by boat, but it can be erratic. Transportation to the mainland by dinghy is too expensive for most islanders. There only communication is a satellite phone and a shortwave radio. They are cut off from the outside world most of the time.
“In 2009, the King Tide covered the whole island,” said community leader Peter Marese. “ It was impossible to get through to the mainland or to get transport. We were without help for two weeks. We had nowhere else to go.”
The Carterret Islanders are being slowly relocated to Tinputz parish, on Bougainville. The Catholic Church has made diocesan land available. The families being relocated receive a plot of hand for their new home and an area to start farming. So far less than 10 have made the move.
Charles Tsibi , his wife and eight children left the islands and have resettled on church land in Tinputz. “It was difficult at first,” he said. “The children weren’t used to strangers. We weren’t used to farming. My family has lived on the islands forever. We were born to fish. It was hard decision to leave, but I had to put my children’s future first.”
The Carteret islanders are a sign of things to come. Climate scientists predict a major shift in human population in the coming century as millions of people are forced to migrate from low-lying coastal areas and islands. The melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers could raise the level of the oceans by 1.4 metres by 2100. Such a rise would result in the inundation of island states such as Tuvalu, and large parts of Bangladesh.
“We understand that the sea levels are rising as a result of the pollution produced by rich industrialised countries,” said Seline Netoi. “Maybe those rich countries should help us now.”
Caritas is urging governments to reduce the greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. Caritas wants rich countries to fund poor countries so they can adapt to bad or extreme weather patterns. But for the Carteret islanders it is too late.
“There is no solution but to leave,” said island leader Peter Marese. “It is difficult, but we have no choice. We have to leave to save our lives”.